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An Italian grocer, a famous sandwich and a long-awaited comeback
NEW ORLEANS — When Hurricane Ida blew through New Orleans two years ago with 113 mph winds, the Central Grocery Company, a hallmark of the French Quarter for 117 years, was left in ruins.
The closure of the old-time Italian deli left New Orleanians, transplants, and tourists hungry for its world-renowned original muffuletta — a gigantic sandwich made on 9-inch-round sesame bread and stuffed with Genoa salami, ham, mortadella, cheese, and olive salad made from a secret family recipe. At its busiest, during Mardi Gras, the deli could sell as many as 1,200 sandwiches a day.
But when a 10-foot-tall brick wall from a neighboring building crashed onto the grocery's roof, the fate of the company, which has been operated by the same family for three generations, was left hanging in the balance.
"The water poured in. There was no way to tarp it because it was like a big swimming pool. For months and months and months, every time it rained, it got wetter. Everything got destroyed, and the counters warped. Everything just got ruined. We even lost important family artifacts," owner Tommy Tusa said. "All we were left with was the two side walls and the front facade."
The Italian deli is no ordinary store. Not only has it been a timeless iconic anchor on Decatur Street in the famed French Quarter since 1906, but it has also been a fixture of New Orleans' culinary history. It represents the history of the Italian people who worked hard to earn their place in this city and struggled to make ends in the area once known as "Little Palermo," after the Sicilian capital.
Restoration efforts have been underway for more than two years. Muffuletta lovers are eager for the reopening, which the owners, including Tommy's cousin Frank Tusa, say is imminent — possibly by October or November. Closing permanently was "absolutely never considered," the owners said.
"I didn't expect to be doing this at my age. We've had challenges all of our lives, just like everybody else, but we don't stick our heads in the sand. We are not quitters," 72-year-old Tommy Tusa said. "We wanted it to come back for my family, for my employees, and the city. I think about all the generations and what they went through with their family. They went through the depression and wars and survived; so coming back was the right thing to do for my family."
Recovery from hurricanes in places like New Orleans is not measured in weeks or months — it takes years. Back-to-back storms in 2020 and 2021 left lasting damage, as did Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The years it took to get to the grocery's reopening highlights the long road to rebuilding, especially for those still struggling to heal and move forward after Ida.
Tourism officials believe the survival of places that have long been a part of the Vieux Carre's 300-year-old cultural fabric is a barometer for how New Orleans is doing.
"Our authentic cuisine is a big reason people choose to visit New Orleans, and Central Grocery's muffuletta often tops their list of must-enjoy foods," said Kelly Schulz, senior vice president of New Orleans & Company, which is the city's destination marketing company. "We are glad to see it reopen after Ida because places like this can never be duplicated or replaced. This is not only welcome news for visitors, it's a good thing for all those who live and work here."
For many businesses, Ida stood in the way of an economic recovery brought on by 18 months of pandemic disruption for the city's $10 billion hospitality industry. The city of New Orleans lost roughly $8.6 million in expected 2021 revenue because of Hurricane Ida.
Power was out for nearly two weeks after Ida made landfall. Businesses lost inventory and sustained damage, and employees fled the path of the storm.
It took five years to recover after Katrina. In the storm's wake in 2005, the number of tourists in the city plummeted more than 60 percent.
After Katrina, the closure of iconic places took a toll on the community. Not all got to reopen and the food landscape shifted, said Ian McNulty, one of the city's longtime food writers who has been tracking the grocery's recovery and others.
"It is a big, big part of the cultural identity of New Orleans — hospitality. Not just how we host the many visitors who come through here, but also how people participate in their New Orleans lives. These are places where people reconnect through good times and bad."
Despite basically "starting from scratch," Tusa said the family has been committed to recreating the store "as if time stood still." For more than 100 years, the store was lined with shelves stocked with imported pasta and olive oil. The smell of cured pork and aged cheeses filled the air.
For many, the experience was as appetizing as the muffuletta. It was not uncommon for lines to stretch out the door and down the street.
Even stars like Bob Hope, Nicholas Cage, Valerie Bertinelli, and Rachael Ray liked having their photos on the walls and bragged about the sandwich, which is enough to feed four.
"Why let it go when we have the ability to keep it going? We're excited about coming back. We're excited to actually see how it's gonna look," Tusa said. "We could have went in and made it a fancy deli, but then, it wouldn't be Central Grocery anymore. It'd be something else."
Faced with such massive damage, McNulty said the Tusa family "could have pretty easily turned it into just a sandwich shop a long time ago." But preserving the history and tradition of the store is part of the point, especially in one of the greatest food cities in the country.
"These places are like a member of the family. It sounds like a morbid exaggeration, but it's really not. People have these long-running relationships with their eating and drinking places; when we do lose them, it's a very personal hit," he said.
The old-fashioned grocery store was founded in 1906 by Salvatore Lupo, a Sicilian immigrant who was famous for creating the muffuletta sandwich. It stood as a testament to the Sicilian community that settled in the area in the early 1900s close to the French Market.
At the turn of the 20th century, there were more than a dozen macaroni factories, several Italian bakeries, and a multitude of importers and small grocers in the neighborhood, historians say.
"Central Grocery was the last, best example of a traditional Sicilian grocery store — the aroma, the ambiance, the imported delicacies, the muffulettas — from early 1900s New Orleans, a time when Sicilian immigrants predominated in the French Quarter," said Richard Campanella, a historical geographer and author at Tulane University School of Architecture. "Descendants of that demographic have since mostly moved out to the suburbs, but a few remain, as property owners and/or residents."
Video by Central Grocery
Salvatore's daughter, Marie Lupo Tusa, wrote about the creation of the sandwich in her 1980 cookbook, "Marie's Melting Pot."
"At lunchtime, farmers would go to my father's grocery and would buy small quantities of Italian cold cuts, cheese, and olive salad. My father also sold a round, puffy, Sicilian-style bread called muffuletta that was baked in small quantities by a Sicilian baker in the neighborhood," she wrote. "In the beginning, the farmers ate the bread along with the cold cuts, cheese, and olive salad. Eventually, my father suggested to his customers that he put it all together as a sandwich for them."
Since Ida, the city has craved the grocery's return, said McNulty, who is also a staff writer for The Times-Picayune newspaper. He misses "the old world evocative atmosphere that washed over you" upon entering the store.
After a storm or any big event, Central Grocery is a place to check in on neighbors. Almost daily, people stop at the construction site to check on its progress, Tusa said.
"There's something about going into the shop, absorbing the aromas, being around the other people, ordering your sandwich, being in the French Quarter, and being where it all happens, it matters," McNulty said. "It's a place where when you go in you can feel the waves of history that have gone before you. The Central Grocery muffulettas are a part of a lot of family traditions. It is part of this heritage that we have here in the city of the Italian influence that plays out in a very significant way across the restaurant scene."
Tommy Tusa said his mom, who lived to be 104 years old, met his father, then a customer, while working in the store. Later, they ran it together and raised a family in it. It's the kind of history that has held this store and neighborhood together.
For the last two years, the muffulettas were still available. They are pre-packaged at a commissary kitchen outside of New Orleans and sold at a handful of local retail outlets and a neighboring store as well as Goldbelly.com, a worldwide shipping service. Customers call endlessly. The store has the same phone number since a phone was installed decades ago.
For Tusa, reopening the store was never about the money or the notoriety of the famous muffuletta sandwich. It was about feeding the hunger of a city that craves family and food, providing for his household and honoring the struggle and old world perseverance of his Sicilian ancestors. They settled and survived under tough conditions long before him. It's a tradition he hopes to pass on.
"I tell my grandkids, 'When you hit a bump in the road, right away you want to feel sorry for yourself and think about what you don't have,'" he said. "'But you need to stop and think about what you have, not what you don't have because there's a lot of people behind you that don't have what you have.'"