This City in Louisiana That Isn't New Orleans Has Some Very Good Food
Shreveport isn't trying to emulate the state's most famous city, but some traditions here will feel awfully familiar.
Nearly a century ago, at the bottom of a hill in a modest neighborhood of shotgun homes that had cropped up on the fringe of downtown Shreveport, Louisiana, a man named John Fulco opened a corner grocery store. It was not a particularly remarkable establishment, and neither was the neighborhood, which never really went anywhere, the soon-outdated homes falling from favor in the postwar period, but still the grocery store lived on, standing at the corner of Fairfield Avenue and Christian Street, passed down through the family until 1960, when Sam Fertitta, by then at the helm of the operation, had a choice to make: Either turn this store into something, or hang it up and move on.
A decision to begin importing Italian products from New Orleans, it turned out, was the correct one. Many of these relatively exotic items were at the time relative unknowns in Shreveport, a city five hours and a couple of planets away from the most prominent metropolis in Louisiana; Fertitta's plan was to sell these imports on to customers. However, once people figured out how good the Italian cold cuts went with that muffuletta bread he was bringing in, not to mention the olive salad, suddenly he was making sandwiches, suddenly Fertitta's was a proper deli, and Shreveport's own version of the muffuletta, that New Orleans classic famously sold at Central Grocery in the French Quarter then, now, and likely forever, was born. They called it The Muffy, rumor has it because this was cheaper than spelling out muffuletta in neon lettering at the top of the building, and the rest was Shreveport culinary history.
Today, right now, you can hop off Interstate 20 any day of the workweek for a Muffy at Fertitta's—the shop is still there, where it has always been, one block north of the thundering highway, which carries countless travelers each week who mostly have no idea what they're missing out on. Stepping through the old door and inside the red brick building during the lunch rush, or anytime, really, is like taking a little trip back to another era—if they've done much updating in here since the sandwich was invented in 1960, that's not immediately apparent. The well-worn wooden floor, painted tin ceilings, walls in dusty green, vinyl checkered table cloths—all that's missing is a dusty bottle of chianti clad in wicker, or a bowl of plastic grapes to make the room, filled with workmen and suits and old-timers and whoever else knows to come here, feel like the set of a movie about the mid-century Italian-American experience, and all that entailed.
But you're not in a movie, Fertitta's is one hundred percent real, and there are a couple of other things you can order, mostly you are here for the sandwich, that sandwich, which retails for $6.75, comes in a 6.5" sesame seed-topped roll, their own, toasted and pressed, smeared with mustard and filled with something like a peppery mortadella, a simple, melted down white cheese that appears to be some kind of American blend, not provolone, an olive spread that's heavy on the pickled vegetables, and a slice of ham. This is not a New Orleans-style muffuletta, it is very much its own experience, The Muffy, and it is still made by a member of the Fertitta family, Agatha, but you can call her Mrs. Agatha. (You can also call her the owner—she's in charge now, with her husband Robert.)
The sandwich might spark a lively discussion among a group of New Orleans muffuletta loyalists, but Shreveport isn't New Orleans, you are safely on the other side of the universe here, away from these people and their opinions. Appreciated on its own merits, in this singular environment that hasn't been immortalized and enshrined and obsessed over by legions of outsiders, The Muffy is a very good sandwich, one that you will likely wolf down within minutes.
While comfortably near the top of the list of local edible traditions (and there are a few), Fertitta's is far from the only essential stop in Shreveport, a city at the heart of a region of roughly half a million people—there's a lot going on here, even if Shreveport's older neighborhoods, like the one where you will find Fertitta's, say otherwise. Before you delve into all the new, very worthwhile stuff—the tap room at Great Raft Brewery, for example—do yourself a kindness and make a stop at Marilynn's Place.
Located in a disused gas station, Marilynn's, a true neighborhood joint, opened back in 2011, and serves up an impressive menu of New Orleans-style casual cooking. If you come here and skip past the fried shrimp (and the catfish, and the roast beef, dripping with rich gravy) po' boys on Gambino's bread, you have made a grievous error and should ask for a do-over, unless of course you were so distracted by the baskets of beignets coming over the pass, golden brown, piping hot and buried under mountains of confectioners sugar, that you had to go straight to them. For best results, do it all. This may not be New Orleans, but it's still Louisiana. Nobody's going to judge.