A best friend is someone who's willing to schlep the length of Airline Drive to share a $3.25 muffaletta on one of December's most brilliant Saturday afternoons. Naturally, then, I was alone on the Saturday afternoon I got lost driving out to Giovanni's Sausage & Specialty Po-Boys. Even the owner sounded cagey when I called for directions. "Where are you coming from?" he asked. "New Orleans? Why?" I fabricated a story about heading to the airport; what I meant to say was that there's something persuasive, confident, about a shop that serves nothing but muffalettas on Saturday. It gives the day a direction, a built-in priority, and it provides a set of like-minded companions for those of us who often eat alone.
Giovanni's muffaletta also delivers, though not the punch of fresh herbs that characterizes Luigi's olive salad or the prickle of Emmenthaler cheese that comes on Central Grocery's standard muffaletta. Instead, when you bite into Giovanni's variation, you push through a warm, seeded bun from Angelo Gendusa Bakery; there's a mellow crescendo when you hit housemade olive salad cut with cauliflower and carrot; and then an effortless carving through strata of peppery salami, bologna-like mortadella, ham and Provolone. This is the kind of unchallenging, steady friend that I'm happy to fight traffic for on a Saturday afternoon.
Jamey Perque says that he and his uncle, Kent Cambre, scale down Giovanni's menu on the weekends in order to ready the shop for its primary function: sausage-making. The muffaletta, like Giovanni's sausages, originated in the Sicilian community that took root in New Orleans in the 1800s. The sandwich is believed to have been born at Central Grocery in 1920, while Giovanni's sausage-making techniques came from its first owner, John (Giovanni) Attardi, who opened shop in 1985 with recipes from his parents' homeland, Sicily. Attardi sold the business through a classified ad eight years ago, but he still buys sausage from Perque and Cambre (honorary Sicilians) to eat at home. "Where else would I go?" he asks.
Perhaps the best introduction to Giovanni's Italian sausage is the combo meatball and sausage po-boy made with seeded bread and Provolone cheese -- a creamier and more graceful melt than mozzarella. There's just enough sweet red sauce to dampen the toasted bread without saturating it, and a few standard, dense meatballs are prudent not to upstage exceedingly tender Italian sausages powered by fennel seed and garlic. On Mondays only, order the aromatic red beans, which are so creamy they achieve a dark, matte purple; ask for a side of the housemade, hunter-orange pork patties riddled with red chile. I don't recall better Monday beans for $3.99, which includes a mini olive salad.
Giovanni's less-predictable sausages are the savory pork patties shot through with capers, whole crawfish tails and green onions (available on sandwiches) and links stuffed with bell peppers, ground pork and imitation crab meat (available for retail only). The latter, not exactly seafood or sausage, taste better than they sound. Hogshead cheese and alligator sausage are made seasonally, whenever that may be.
Along with adhering to Attardi's recipes, Giovanni's current owners seem to trust his earliest decorating instincts. From the outside, the shop is as careworn as the defunct seafood store and boarded-up sno-ball stand beside it. A motto painted onto the facade, "Specializing in Quality," is tanning into obscurity; the sentiment, not its fading, reflects the sausages. One rickety table and 10 stools within the designated eating space are accompanied by a portrait of the Virgin Mary, a vintage 7-Up machine (normally filled with Sprite), and threadbare posters of Florence and Naples. A handwritten notice selling a 1995 T-Bird, a few packages of angel-hair pasta and bags of Angelo Brocato's biscotti appear to be the room's freshest additions. If New Orleans had a Sicilian commission certifying the authenticity of places like Giovanni's, Brocato's biscotti could serve as its seal of approval.
A second Giovanni's Sausage & Specialty Po-Boys located on Veterans Memorial Boulevard ensures that you can treat a craving for Sicilian sausages on either of Jefferson Parish's most dreadful roadways. Attardi's sons ran this location until four years ago; current owner Michael Nguyen must sell the sausages in order to keep the Giovanni name. The interior of this location is similar to the flagship: a map of Sicily, a pastel study of Jesus, fluorescent silk flowers. If you're tempted to stray from the sausages here, skip the unseasoned fried seafood and try a po-boy made with wisp-thin roast beef and thick, beefy gravy.
If you're not up for the trek to either location, look for Giovanni's artisan sausages at Breaux Mart, Maximo's, Central Grocery, Fausto's Kitchen, Brick Oven Cafe, Barreca's and area po-boy shops.
While I've never been organized enough myself, I love the Orleanian idea of stuffing a muffaletta into your carry-on bag to eat during a meal-starved flight. Giovanni's Airline Drive location gives last-minute packers like me hope of one day not having to beg for extra pretzels. And I imagine that making best friends is a breeze when you've schlepped a muffaletta up to 30,000 feet.