The Valley of the Sun is 1,500 miles from New Orleans' Little Palermo neighborhood, a district seated next to the French Quarter that happens to be where the muffaletta was born. And since this deli marvel is a multicultural invention, if you're Créole, it's pronounced muff-uh-LOT-ah; if you're Italian, it's MOOF-uh-LET-ah.
It's not known exactly when NOLA's iconic, working-class sandwich made its way west, but we can tell you that the muffaletta is a must-try. The hearty, salty, cheesy sandwich that defies spell-check programs in every language is on more than a few menus around town (not including those delis that offer the muffaletta only as a special), so we decided it was time to find a champion.
In this corner: Galileo Bread & Coffee
The Setting: Galileo Bread & Coffee is less a casual eatery than one which is dressed down. It's Scottsdale, after all. The café offers five gleaming tables inside, six on the patio, a bookshelf market of imported olive oils and other Italian specialties, a self-serve refrigerator for cold drinks--the slightly bitter Chinotto is a treat with the muffaletta--and two cases of pastry heaven.
The Good: Galileo turns the basic muffaletta recipe (deli meat, cheese, and olive spread), into an elegant treat. The olive salad is homemade, well-seasoned, and gets some extra kick thanks to a dash of finely-diced, homemade giardiniera relish. The melted provolone marries the textures and flavors of mortadella, salami, and prosciutto. Galileo's muffaletta is generously portioned and a good value, as well. Take it from us, a side salad pairs best--chips or pickled veg compete with the sandwich. The muffaletta is divine when served warm, but Galileo's holds up to the lunch pail test. (Invented by Salvatore Lupo for the Italian workers who frequented NOLA's Central Grocery, the muffaletta always was a sandwich on the go.)
The Bad: Purists might quibble over the choice and preparation of the bread. Rather than using the round, thick sesame bread that gave the panino its name, Galileo uses fresh-baked bread that they then toast and press. A bigger issue (for some palates) is the epic saltiness of this spicy sandwich.
In the other corner: Flavors of Louisiana
The Setting: Flavors of Louisiana is a family-owned and -operated bistro in the west Valley with no pretensions (which we love). The space reminds us of the dine-in grocery stores you find throughout southern Louisiana: lots of Formica tables, industrial chairs, plenty of paper napkins delivered with your food, and Lazy Susans holding as many as ten different kinds of spices and sauces. Some Louisiana-themed memorabilia and a swamp mural add a touch of kitsch to the place.
The Good: The fresh-baked baguette (ordered in, rather than baked on premises) gave this sandwich a French picnic vibe. Flavors of Louisiana is owned by Louisiana native Jennifer Goff, and the family members who cook and serve here will tell anyone who asks that the menu starts with Ms. Goff's mother's recipes. The Flavors of Louisiana muffaletta has a blend of toasted Provolone and Swiss cheese over ham and salami--the blended cheese is a nice touch and the creamy, nutty flavors sing. The baguette is halved and the bottom is piled with meats and cheese, lightly grilled to melt the cheese, then dressed with lettuce and tomato. A layer of rough-chopped and subtly-spiced olive salad seals the deal before the sandwich is crowned with the other baguette half. We liked the fact that Louisiana staples such as red beans and rice and dirty rice were available as sides for the muffaletta, not just the typical deli fare of salads or chips.
The Bad: The dialed-down flavors of this sandwich worked well to showcase the cheese blend that makes this muffaletta unique, but ultimately, we thought there could have been a little more spice in the olive salad or on the fresh vegetables. (Of course, by sampling liberally from the tabletop Lazy Susan, we could adjust the spices at the table.)
The Winner: The muffaletta is a humble sandwich that was built as a delivery system for the cumbersome meats, cheeses, and olives that Italian workers snagged on their way to work. The Flavors of Louisiana muffaletta is tasty and more interesting than others popping up on deli menus around town these days, but the mix of cured meats and party-in-your-mouth spices in the Galileo Bread & Coffee muffaletta won us over.
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