If you brave a stroll down Decatur Street on just about any afternoon, you're bound to see at least one camera-slung couple debating between two Italian groceries -- just one trinket shop apart -- in which to eat lunch. One grocery will have a familiar name and a queue so long it'll be impossible for them to discern whether waiting it out will mean they're food-savvy travelers or tourism casualties (both, by the way, would be true). The slogan in the second grocery's window, "mo cheaper, mo better," will catch the couple's eye, as will the significantly shorter wait -- all the more time for beignets later. Nudge them into Luigi's Fine Foods and they'll thank you afterwards. One of them might even ask, as he licks the sandwich paper clean, "What exactly was the name of that sandwich again?"
That would be a muffaletta, sir, a sandwich the size of a frisbee that is so New Orleans that, along with gumbo and king cake, it was omitted from the 892-page, world-encompassing Oxford Companion to Food. For nearly 80 years, the two muffaletta hotspots on Decatur Street were Progress Grocery, opened in the 1920s by the Perrone Family, and Central Grocery, opened even earlier by Salvatore Lupo, who is credited with inventing the sandwich. When the Perrones sold their building at 915 Decatur St. last year (they still wholesale their olive salad over the Internet), there was potential that Lupo's descendents at Central would be the block's sole reminders of a time when Italian immigrant families were the only one's eating muffalettas in the French Quarter.
But if you happen to have been a Progress disciple, you'll exalt at recognizing a man seated at the rear of what is now Luigi's, slicing salami into wispy disks and cutting wedges of imported Provolone from a wheel for neighborhood women who don't yet have a one-stop supermarket in their own backyard. Mario, a quiet, slick-haired man who worked at Progress for 40 years, now seems to be Luigi's resident seer. When a frazzled tourist scuttles in looking through the truffle oils and panettone for "those biscuit things that Brennan's puts under their eggs Benedict," Mario swivels from his slicer with the speed of Canal Street traffic at 5 p.m. and asks, "You mean Holland Rusks?" He remains at his post because the contingent of French Quarter Italians that purchased the building decided to maintain its muffaletta customs. Luigi's ownership is split among a trio of men also linked to Matassa's Grocery (Luigi is Louis Matassa), Vieux Carré Wine & Spirits and the French Market Restaurant.
Like in Progress' day, Luigi's house muffalettas are made on loaves of airy, sesame-coated United Bakery bread. And they're still good. You can get a Regular made with ham, salami and provolone, or a Special with mortadella, a sort of garlicky bologna; the Russell, made like the Special with extra prosciutto and longhorn cheese, is Luigi's showstopper and the version I would order again. The cheddar-orange cheese seems misplaced, like Brie on a Big Mac, but the prosciutto adds a chewy, pleasantly gamey dimension. And the olive salad -- oh, that olive salad! -- is a tangy, rough-chopped burlesque of green olives, capers, cauliflower, carrots, celery, olive oil, garlic and herbs. There's nothing earth-shattering in the difference between these and other muffalettas also made with superlative olive salads around town; face it, the subtlety between deli meats and cheeses pales under the influence of a great olive salad. If you were to conduct a taste test between Luigi's muffaletta and a muffaletta at one of its main competitors on a random afternoon like I did, however, Luigi's might very well win, if only by the width of an oregano leaf. Softer bread, more olive salad and a smaller price tag tipped the scales.
As much ink as muffalettas deserve, Luigi's lasagna is such a tempting combination of swarthy Italiana and New Orleans excess that it could be outlawed in stricter quarters. The red sauce, accounting for most of the dish, is the color of a dirty fire engine and twice as loud in pepper and spice. Ground beef, herbed ricotta, lasagna noodles and hard-cooked egg participate in the same behind-the-scenes style of a great movie composer. Vivacious meatballs are similarly spiced, moist and without concern for keeping their shapes; meatball po-boys are thus so fine that finishing one is as bittersweet as reaching the back cover of a favorite novel. Chef Nick Ruffino, who will tell you all about the French Quarter's former Italian bakeries, restaurants and theaters, concocts simple soup combinations like long-simmered lentils with garlic and minestrone with chicken. If not fabulous, stuffed artichokes and raisin bread pudding are competent specimens of more local fare.
Whatever your order, expect it to come bundled as if prepared for a long journey, but don't shy away from unwrapping it in the grocery and joining in the banter. It'll soon become clear that, even if families from Boise, Idaho, account for more muffaletta sales than Italians do on the average afternoon, the sun is long not set on the spirit behind the Decatur Street muffaletta.
- Cheryl Gerber
- The slogan at LUIGI'S FINE FOODS is ?mo cheaper, mo better,? and its three versions of muffalettas (along with a decadent lasagna) argue the point very well, as young Tavish McGrain can attest.