If I were sight impaired and someone walked me through certain doors, I would know the perfumed vapors of an old-timey Italian market. They’re the smells of garlic, olives, cured meats, hard cheeses and old appetites satisfied. It is the olfactory equivalent of being wrapped in your grandmother’s wool shawl on a cool autumn night: yummy, secure, safe. Linzalone’s in Old Chelsea, Molinari Delicatessen in North Beach, Central Grocery in New Orleans.
I recently sat down with Tommy Tusa, third-generation owner/operator of Central Grocery, at his shop at 923 Decatur Street in the French Quarter. As we all know, Salvatore Lupo (Tommy’s grandfather) is said to have been the originator of a more than extraordinary sandwich, a sandwich that is as indicative of New Orleans as the Mississippi River: the Muffuletta. Tommy is tall and trim and, if such a word can be used, dapper in appearance. His age is nebulous; he appears to be 10 years either side of 50. He and his cousin Frank Tusa run the day-to-day operations. Like all true Sicilians, Tommy talks as much with his words as with his facial and physical expressions. We sit at the far end of the eating counter; he, of course, sits where he can see his employees and the action.
Where Y'at: First of all, can we tell everyone, once and for all, the proper pronunciation of the sandwich?
Tommy Tusa: Muffuletta, pronounced “moo-full-lette-tah!” People say it a lot of other ways; we don’t really care, as long as they want one.
WYAT: And the name means?
TT: From what we can make out from the stories that my mother tells, it probably came from a baker named Muffuletta and was called Muffuletta bread long before we started making it into a sandwich. That’s as much as we can make out. We don’t know if it’s true, but it stands to reason.
WYAT: How did the store get started?
TT: My grandfather, like a lot of Italian immigrants, came here and worked in the grocery business. In 1906 he opened his own grocery about a block away, and in 1919 he bought this property and opened this (gestures to the store). French Market workers used to come in and buy the ingredients for the sandwich from us, then they’d go outside and buy some bread from a pushcart, sit on barrels and such places, eat the bread (makes tearing motion) and ingredients. Then my grandfather got the idea of making the sandwich. There were at least six Italian bakeries in the Quarter at the time; in fact, there were shops like this throughout the neighborhood.
"Muffuletta, pronounced “moo-full-lette-tah!” People say it a lot of other ways; we don’t really care, as long as they want one."
WYAT: This used to be a large ethnic neighborhood. Do you ever see that coming back?
TT: I remember like it was yesterday: the ice house, the fish markets; no, I don’t see it ever being the same. My father was raised in the French Quarter. It was a real neighborhood up until about 1950, and then it started to change. Now what we have here (indicates the street) are these gutter punks; they sit outside panhandling, they camp out at night and you have to clean up after them in the morning—their garbage, food scraps, beer cans. You have to chase them away during the day—“you can’t sit here, you can’t sit here,” you’ve got to keep telling them. They’re ruining businesses and no one is doing anything about them.
WYAT: Your mother wrote a cookbook? [Marie’s Melting Pot, 1980]
TT: Yes, my mother and my two grandmothers; it took three or four years. Writing recipes, testing them and cooking and cooking. I remember the stories; my mother tells all the old stories; I know those stories. My mother lives in Covington; she’s 104 years old and frail, so she doesn’t do interviews…obviously.
WYAT: Any thoughts of retiring? Any other family members coming into the business?
TT: I’ve worked here since 1970, so that’s 45 years. No, there’s me and my cousin and there’s no other generation coming up behind us. Besides, what would I do if I retired? (shrugs) Stay at home and be bored?
WYAT: Were you looted during Katrina?
TT: Yes, all the businesses were. We opened after three months and one day after that. Jim Belushi came in and saw that his picture was still on the wall and he said, “Well, at least they didn’t get me!” We get a lot of celebrities in; I’ll show you the photos. John Goodman loves the Muffuletta; he can’t eat it here because they (gestures toward the customers) won’t leave him alone.
WYAT: How many sandwiches have you made?
TT: On a busy day we’ll make about 500.
WYAT: So you’ve made a million Muffulettas.
TT: A few million, at least. We’ve been in business over 100 years (looks at me to indicate I should do the math). And we ship. Overnight, next-day delivery.
WYAT: What do you see as the future?
TT: Kids these days, they don’t know how to work; you have to tell them over and over how to do the same thing. You tell them to stay off their cellphone and then (making an imaginary call at waist level) you see them in the corner. I’ll tell you a story: When I was just starting working here, one day I made myself a little sandwich and sat down; my uncle came up to me and said, “What are you doing?” and I told him. He said (slightly raising his voice), “Hey! You don’t eat here, you eat at home, after you get off; now get back to work!” And that’s the way it was. Nowadays…
WYAT: When I was a kid, I had a friend named Rocco. My mother used to call him a “Bacciagalupe.” When I asked her what that meant, she would just point at him and say, “Him, he’s a Bacciagalupe!” Do you know what that means?
TT: (laughing) Yes, I’ve heard that word; I think it means wiseguy or weirdo or some such character.
WYAT: Now, here’s the big one; what advice would you give to young folks coming up? What advice do you give your children?
TT: I have two daughters and grandchildren. What would I say to them? (looks heavenward and then into my eyes) I would say, “Do whatever you do to the best of your ability. Do it well, and never, never give up. Never let anyone discourage you!”
And then, like a true business owner, he shook my hand, thanked me and said (indicating the sandwich counter), “I’ve got to get back to work.”