Certain things about muffuletta are open to interpretation. There’s its spelling: “muffuletta” versus “muffaletta.” And its pronunciation: muff-a-lotta versus muff-a-letta. But its bread? Most certainly not open to interpretation.
The storied New Orleans hero-style sandwich, said to have originated at Salvatore Lupo’s Central Grocery Store in 1906, is rarely found outside of its Louisiana home. While its fillings of provolone, cold cuts, and olive salad are easy enough to find, replicating the crusty, puffy loaves they’re stuffed into is another matter entirely.
It’s that bread that sent St. John Frizell on a mission in search of loaves worthy of the sandwich’s name. Muffuletta plays a starring role on the menu of Fort Defiance, the cafe and bar Frizell recently opened in Red Hook. “The sandwich is named after the bread,” he explains. “It’s a big, round loaf that doesn’t look like anything else. It’s from Sicily, though some people think it’s from Albania–its origins are shady.” The bread should be “a little puffy on top and crispy on the bottom, with sesame seeds.”
“There’s nothing like it here,” Frizell says. “When you see muffuletta, they’re on focaccia or ciabatta or something weird. When you change the bread, you change whole thing. You can call it something else, but it’s not muffuletta.”
So Frizell asked around. One of his waiters knew about a place on Staten Island called Royal Crown Bakery. Two phone calls were made: one, to the bakery; the second, to a New Orleans friend who sent Frizell a couple of muffuletta sandwiches. A sandwich summit was held. “The baker is a guy named Joe,” Frizell says. “He’s really big, like 6′ 2″, and kind of looks like Emeril Lagasse. I had a sandwich laid out and he looked at it, poked it, picked off a crumb and rolled it between his fingers, smelled the bread, and ate the bread. He was like, ‘Yeah, we can do this.'”
A few days later, Joe returned with four loaves of four different breads, all slightly varied in texture and consistency. Frizell chose the one that best approximated New Orleans’ beloved loaf, and the bakery fine-tuned it, making the bottom a little crispier.
Aside from a couple of weekends where “the bread came out weird” due to a change in Joe’s staff, Frizell has been “very happy” with his muffuletta, ordering about 10 loaves every day. “Ours is bigger than in New Orleans: theirs is an 8-inch round, ours is 10 inches, but they cut it into quarters and we cut it into sixths.” The slight discrepancy, he says, hasn’t perturbed his customers from New Orleans. “Their reaction has been great,” he says. “It makes me really proud.”
Bigger bread may pass muster, but certain muffuletta principles are less amenable to alteration, Frizell says. “People want it at night, but we want to keep it as a lunch item–it’s a special lunch thing. I had a long talk with the chef yesterday, and it’s never going to show up on the dinner menu.
“Muffuletta,” he states with finality, “is not for dinner.”