The day after Christmas, I was walking along Decatur St. in New Orlean’s French Quarter, heading to Central Grocery Co. for a muffuletta to take home to Hattiesburg. Just as I was realizing the famous store was closed, a scruffy guy about three-quarters of the way into a serious drunk, leaned over and said, “Hey, baby, it’s closed and that’s a good thing. Frank’s muffuletta is better and they’re open.” He pointed a few doors down and I followed his shaky finger to Frank’s sign.
The sign above the entrance to Central Grocery reads “Since 1906” and “Home of the Original Muffuletta.” Frank’s Restaurant sign reads “World Famous Original Muffuletta;” it opened in 1965.
I stepped up to the counter at Frank’s and asked, politely, about the claim that their famous sandwich was better than Central Grocery’s. Why? I wondered.
“We put more meat on our sandwich, our olive salad is better and we make them to order. Central Grocery makes all theirs in the morning and they are very rude to customers,” was the reply.
I ordered up a whole sandwich (they are sold by halves and wholes), watched the counter dude make it and then ponied up about $16, plus a $3 tip.
Several hours later, back in Hattiesburg, we sliced the sandwich, which had been resting at room temperature, into eighths. It was yummy, as any good muffuletta is, but in all honesty we did not notice a huge difference between Frank’s and Central Grocery’s, which we’d brought home from our first stay in New Orleans a few days earlier. Three of us finished off just half the sandwich, wrapped up what remained and had it the next day for lunch. Those who think $16 is expensive for a sandwich don’t get it. A true muffuletta will easily serve four people or two really really hungry people. It will serve 8 or more as an appetizer.
I’ve also enjoy a traditional New Orleans muffuletta at The Pearl Restaurant & Oyster Bar (119 Saint Charles Ave.), which gets absolutely terrible reviews on such web sites as urbanspoon and yelp. I’ve only been there once so I’m no expert but their oysters and red beans and rice were excellent and we loved their muffuletta, which was served hot, a very good idea. We managed to eat just a quarter of it, took the rest home and served it as appetizers that evening. This was on a previous trip to Nola a couple of years ago. I didn’t make it there this trip, as they were closed for vacation.
Shortly before heading to the airport to return home, I stood on Decatur St., trying to decide between Frank’s and Central Grocery’s muffuletta. There is often a line snaking out the door of Central Grocery but I seemed to have arrived during a lull. I walked in, smiled and requested a muffuletta, after confirming that there’s no problem getting through airport security with one. The clerk barely looked me in the eye, grumbled more than spoke and was, indeed, rather rude. But his rudeness had a familiarity about it; it was almost campy. It reminded me of San Francisco’s Caffe Sport, pre-1990s. The Sicilian restaurant was famous for its rude waiters and their theatrical insults were part of the experience. I think Central Grocery–founded by Salvatore Lupo, a Sicilian immigrant–is similar: The rudeness comes with a wink.
I tucked the muffuletta into my carry-on bag. Once home, it fed me for two days.
Now I’m craving a muffuletta and have no plans to return to New Orleans any time soon. Central Grocery will ship its olive salad and its muffuletta, but that seems a bit extreme. Better to delay gratification than indulge in FedEx shipping. But here’s a hot tip for anyone longing for Nola’s famous sandwich: Muffuletta is on the menu at Francis Coppola Winery’s Rustic. You can enjoy it in the restaurant itself, at the bar and, when it opens, in the Pool Cafe. I know from experience that it is really good.
Rustic offers the sandwich in quarters ($10), halves ($14) and whole ($20). Even if you’re alone, it makes sense to get a whole sandwich, enjoy a quarter and take home the rest. Bread for the sandwich is shipped from Nola and the sandwich wrapped in traditional paper. It’s as close as you’ll get to the real thing in Sonoma County, unless you make it yourself, which I have done a time or two.