I was in my fifties when I finally made it to New Orleans. On my first morning, I knew exactly where I wanted to go. 923 Decatur Street in the French Quarter. That was the location of an old Italian food market called Central Grocery who made one of the world’s legendary sandwiches.
I’m guessing what you’re guessing. I’m guessing you’re guessing an oyster po’ boy. That’s the Crescent City’s most well known contribution to two slices of bread with something in-between. But no, there’s another sandwich, one whose fame hasn’t spread quite as far but, in my opinion, still deserves to be in the sandwich hall of fame.
It’s called the muffuletta. And it’s the reason why Central Grocery has been an institution in New Orleans since 1906. Its success is probably why Central Grocery appears to never have heard of the word renovation.
I waited in line for about 20 minutes for my first muffuletta. I remember that the only choice you were given was whole, cut in half, or cut in quarters. I remember that it was about the diameter of a frisbee. I remember the rest of the people sitting at the counter only had halves or quarters. And I remember waiting in line another 20 minutes to buy a Central Grocery. Home of the Muffuletta t-shirt. This was a sandwich that warranted a take-back-to-Toronto souvenir.
There are a lot of places you can buy a muffuletta in New Orleans these days. But there are not a lot of places outside of New Orleans. One of them, interestingly, is San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Anthony d’Avanza hails from Nawlins (as he pronounces it) and, recently, he added the muffuletta to the menu at his stand in the new Mercado Centro food court.
In very simple terms, a muffuletta is a cured meat and cheese sandwich. The meats and cheeses vary depending on the muff maker and the only set rule is the quantity must be generous. Anthony d’Avanza’s muffuletta stays fairly true to the Central Grocery original. There’s Serrano ham, Italian salami, mortadella, smoked ham and smoked Provolone cheese. Currently the meats are sourced from La Barcelonesa and the cheese from Remo’s but what I like about Anthony d’Avanza is he’s always searching for something better.
“I was in Dolores Hidalgo the other night”, Anthony told me the last time I had one of his muffulettas. “I had some amazing mortadella and I’m going back this week to find out where it comes from.”
The choice of meats and cheese are important but not as important as the choice of bread and the most important ingredient of all, the olive salad that goes inside the sandwich.
I was surprised that d’Avanza’s sources their buns from a supermarket, Soriano. It’s light, generously coated with sesame seeds, and a few seconds on the grill freshens it up and prevents that most important ingredient from making it soggy.
I wasn’t surprised where d’Avanza’s sources their olive salad. They make their own. I asked Anthony d’Avanza’s partner Ivan Moran, the chef you’ll usually find behind the counter, to share the ingredients.
“There’s olives, of course,” said Ivan, “plus peppers, anchovies, celery, red onions, garlic, oregano and red wine vinegar.”
Just as signicant as how the olive salad is made is how much of it goes on the sandwich. I’ve found that what goes on to d’Avanza’s muffuletta is just right. It’s like an antipasto platter you can hold in your hand.
There’s never a place quite like the first place. Never a taste quite like the first taste. But I doubt that I’ll ever get back to New Orleans. Doubt I’ll ever line up again in Central Grocery. But I do have my muffuletta. Right here in San Miguel.
D’Avanza Natural International Sausages, Etc. is located in Mercado Central, Codo 36, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.