Unless you’ve spent a little time in New Orleans, or a lot of time watching food shows on TV, chances are you haven't encountered a real muffuletta sandwich. But you’re going to want to know what a muffuletta is — and where you can get your hands on one right here in Denver.
While New Orleans is most famous for its po' boys (especially those loaded with fried shrimp or roast beef), the Big Easy also takes credit for the muffuletta. In fact, the muffuletta is hard to find outside of the Mississippi Delta — at least in a form recognizable to Louisiana natives.
Originating in Old World Sicily, the muffuletta is a type of traditional bread that lent its name to a style of sandwich here in the New World. Credit for inventing the sandwich goes to Salvatore Lupo, who started serving them at his Central Grocery in New Orleans in 1906. But you don't need to travel to the Gulf Coast for a muffuletta; you can find a version in Denver at Little Carmine’s Italian Sandwiches, 84 South Pennsylvania Street, where the bread is baked in-house daily and the meat isn't sliced until you place your order.
A traditional muffuletta loaf is typically round (about ten inches in diameter) and topped with sesame seeds. The bread is more of a supporting member and the stars are the fillings — piles of provolone cheese and a tantalizing combination of spicy meats like Genoa salami, mortadella, sopressata and capocollo. Little Carmine's sticks to a long sub-style loaf without sesame seeds, but otherwise gets the sandwich fillings right. Instead of lettuce or tomatoes found on typical subs, the muffuletta relies on olive salad, somewhat of a cross between tapenade and giardiniera. It's salty and spicy and has bright flavors balanced with the silkiness and earthiness of olive oil.
The muffuletta would not be on the menu at Little Carmine's unless the olive salad had first been perfected. The recipe here was created by Joe Hubbard, who previously worked as a chef in New Orleans. Recently retired, Hubbard has rolled up his knives and now spends his time trout fishing, but his culinary legacy lives on in the kitchen and on the menu board.
Brad Ritter, who runs Little Carmine's — and Carmine's on Penn next door — with his wife, Cathy, has explored Italian cuisine in America through his culinary travels, and talks about what it took to develop the recipe for his muffuletta in Denver. "It’s not just a sandwich, it’s an experience,” he explains.
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Carmine's on Penn has been a landmark Italian restaurant for family dining since 1994, but Little Carmine’s didn’t open until 2013. In addition to the muffuletta, the Ritters offer a sandwich menu based not on the regions of Italy, but rather on the types of foods that Italian immigrants made popular here in the different regions of America. Other standouts on the board include an Italian beef sandwich from Chicago, a hoagie from the old shipyards of New Jersey, and a sausage-and-pepper sandwich from the Midwest. Ritter's food philosophy is simple: Make it fresh, use the best ingredients, and stuff the sandwiches full to bursting — then add some more.
The muffuletta pairs well with beer or wine — and be sure to leave a little room for a fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie so big it needs two zip codes.
It’s been said that Italian men only think about two things, and the second one is spaghetti. But Little Carmine's gives that stereotypical Italian — and the rest of us, too — something else to consider with its muffuletta.
Little Carmine’s Italian Sandwiches is located at 84 South Pennsylvania Street and is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day but Sunday. For more information, call 303-993-8742 or go to littlecarmines.com.