Whatever you call it -- grinder, hoagie, or sub -- it's the perfect warm weather meal: cheese, vegetables, meat, and bread in a cool, hand-held package. The muffuletta is New Orleans's take on the grinder and one of the most satisfying of America's regional sandwiches. Besides deli meats, it's made with marinated artichokes, a fresh roasted pepper, and a salty paste, like a pesto, of basil and olives.
In some ways, it may seem strange that the Italian-based muffuletta was invented in New Orleans, whose cuisine is so firmly grounded in French, African, and Caribbean flavors. Historically, New Orleans has always had a large Italian presence. In 1850, Louisiana had the highest population of Italian-born residents in the United States. Later, during the mass migrations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, New Orleans was a popular destination for Sicilians fleeing poverty at home. They came to Louisiana to work as dockworkers and stevedores, and as laborers on the sugar plantations. Populations of Sicilians in the declining French Quarter rose so dramatically that sections of the neighborhood were known locally as ''Little Palermo" and ''Little Sicily."
Muffuletta is the enduring mark of those immigrants. It's ideally suited to the warm, humid weather of the Delta, and its powerful flavors match the spirited cuisine of the region. The Central Grocery (923 Decatur Street in the French Quarter) is the historic home of the muffuletta. Their history claims that the sandwich was invented in 1906 and named for a customer who frequented the shop, although another tradition holds that the name came from the type of bread used in the dish. While the sandwich is still sold at the Central Grocery, versions of the muffuletta are available throughout New Orleans.
What's in a name?
Layers of meat and cheese inside bread are offered throughout the country, sometimes heated or pressed, often cold, always generously filled. In Maine, a grinder is known as an Italian. The classic sub of Connecticut and the mid-Atlantic is a wedge in New York's Westchester County, a hero in Manhattan, a torpedo in the Bronx, a hoagy in Pennsylvania, a Zep or Zeppelin in western Pennsylvania and western New York, and a Garibaldi in Wisconsin.