By Nicole Danna
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You don't hear much about the Italian contribution to the distinctive cuisine of New Orleans. You can discern the French influence easily enough, as well as the Spanish and African-American -- cookbooks and historical tomes alike laud the region's primary settlers and their edible offerings. But pasta and marinara sauce? What does that have to do with boudin, etouffee, and jambalaya?
Plenty, it appears. I got my first good lesson from E. Annie Proulx's novel Accordion Crimes, which documented the rise of Little Palermo in the slums of the city. Italian immigrants worked the docks, mainly unloading bananas, and like many ethnic groups in New Orleans, they were also discriminated against. In a culinary sense, though, "red gravy" (New Orleans marinara sauce) is at least as popular with the natives as red beans and rice.
I received my second lesson on the subject during dinner the other night at the two-month-old Muffuletta's, which recently moved from Fort Lauderdale, where it was located on South State Road 7 for two years, to University Drive in Coral Springs. The muffuletta, a submarine-style sandwich of cold cuts and cheeses garnished with chopped, marinated green olives and served on a round bread, originated in an Italian deli in New Orleans and quickly became famous citywide. This sub may be the one Italian item tourists know as practically native to the region.
Chef-proprietor Glenn Weinstein, realizing that most folks would have never suspected the muffuletta might be Italian, wants to educate the public. And the Cajun and Creole fare on the menu tends to lure the eye. So Weinstein offers Italian sausage next to boudin, fried calamari next to corn-fried oysters, and individual-size pizza pies next to crawfish pie on the menu.
I admit to having been initially skeptical. The bistro is sandwiched (no pun intended) among the chain restaurants that dominate this strip of road. Stars and moons hang from a peaked ceiling, a night-sky mural fills one wall, and gauzy, star-studded curtain swatches add a Crate and Barrel decorative touch. (Our server told us that a restaurant called La Luna occupied the space just prior to Muffuletta's; hence the stars. Before that, the joint was a Kenny Rogers Roasters franchise, which explains the formica diner-style tables.)
Still, the interior design is pretty, and even if the ornamental touches don't pass a skeptic's eye, the appetizers surely will. "Bat wings," chicken wings coated with the owner's secret recipe (no, he won't reveal it), consisted of eight deep-fried wings in a dark, savory sauce redolent with garlic and soy. Corn-fried oysters were also a winning treat -- plump to a fault, too big to swallow in one bite, and meltingly tender. A "Cajun" tartar sauce that accompanied this dish was smooth and creamy, though it could have used a bit of spice to warrant the appellation; my only real complaint here is that the oysters weren't served warm enough; it seemed as if they'd sat too long in the kitchen after being cooked.
One of the tastiest appetizers was a special that evening, boudin stuffed with crawfish and rice. This homemade sausage was delicious, and worth waiting for (which we did -- our order arrived with the entrees). The boudin was literally bursting, its savory rice-based filling popping through the casing. A plainer pork sausage was also offered the night we visited; either could be ordered as a main course.
Like the boudin, twelve-inch pizzas are available as appetizers or entrees (in the latter case they come with a salad). Here Weinstein eschews authenticity, combining Italian and Cajun ingredients on the crisp-edged dough. Pizza purists will be pleased to know that thin-crust marinara-and-mozzarella pies baked with traditional toppings such as pepperoni, mushrooms, and sausage, are also on the menu. But the adventurous palate can partake of the gourmet variety: the "Rockefeller" (oysters, spinach sauce, and bacon) or the "Orleans" (blackened chicken, andouille sausage, and Creole sauce), for example. We enjoyed the "bon temps," a creamy combination of crawfish, spinach, onions, and corn sauce, a light yellow concoction that served in lieu of marinara. The mellow sauce, like creamed corn, blended with the mozzarella melted on top of it, while the onions and shredded spinach added both color and flavor. But the curled, pink crawfish were the pizza's most impressive aspect; even after being subjected to pizza-oven temperatures, the generously sprinkled shellfish were succulent and buttery.
Served with all entrees, the aforementioned house salad comprises a plate of iceberg lettuce, shredded red cabbage, red onion, and sliced tomato, accented by a house-made balsamic vinaigrette that's very good, sharp enough to engage the palate but not so acidic as to overwhelm it. Be warned -- after the basket of fluffy rolls brought in at the beginning of the meal, an appetizer, and a salad, the main course might seem a little daunting. But as our waitress pointed out, this is the kind of food that often tastes even better the next day, so don't be afraid to ask for a doggy bag.
The jambalaya certainly required one. A huge mound of rice, andouille sausage, chicken, crawfish, and shrimp was garnished with a dark tomato sauce, echoing the flavor that pleasantly informed the rice mixture. Because this one-pot meal is prepared in advance, Chef Weinstein tends to make it mild and supplies hot sauce on the table. I'd have preferred mine with a little kick and thought the rice a little mushy, but the poultry, shellfish, and sausage were ideally done. Red beans and rice, a platter of tender kidney beans stewed with andouille sausage and ladled over white rice, might also have benefited from a hand unafraid to increase the heat; otherwise they were faultless.