The muffaletta is one of New Orleans’ most iconic and identifiable dishes. Made on large rounds of sesame bread and layered with olive salad, genoa salami, ham, mortadella, provolone and Swiss cheese, the muffaletta is clearly Italian in spirit and yet no such sandwich exists in Italy. Instead, it is the creation of Sicilian immigrants who arrived en masse to the Port of New Orleans from the Port of Palermo in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. These new inhabitants brought with them strong customs and recipes that were joined with already vibrant local food traditions and ingredients.
Most of these immigrants settled in and quickly set up shop close to the busy French Market. This densely populated and thriving section of the lower French Quarter was referred to as “Little Palermo” and the “Italian Sector,” and was home to a multitude of small shops and businesses. These included several Sicilian bread bakers, who baked a traditional Sicilian loaf called the “muffuletto.” These early bread bakers often sold their wares on the street, yelling “muffuletto, caldo, caldo.” Bakers also sold their loaves wholesale to grocers.
One such grocer was Mr. Salvatore Lupo, of Central Grocery store, who is widely credited with making the first muffaletta sandwich in 1906. According to his daughter, Marie Lupo Tusa, farmers would stop in at her father’s shop at lunchtime, buy a loaf of muffuletto bread, sliced cold cuts, olives and cheese, and eat them standing up or balanced on their laps. In order to make it easier for customers to hold everything, Mr. Lupo decided to put all the ingredients together on a sandwich. The sandwich was not called by the name “muffaletta” at first, but eventually, the name of the bread carried over to the name of the sandwich.
Today, the traditional Sicilian bread bakeries have virtually disappeared; the sandwich that took its name from the round loaf remains as a testimony to an amazing one hundred year survival of a New Orleans born and "bread" tradition.