Around lunchtime on Galveston Island, there are few places I’d rather be than bellied up to the long, communal table at Maceo’s Spice & Import Company, elbow-to-elbow with amiable strangers, waiting for my muffaletta sandwich to come out of the kitchen.
Maceo’s Spice & Import Company is at 2706 Market St. in Galveston. Hours: Tue-Sat 11-5, with Sunday brunch (muffalettas and beignets only) 10-2.
There’s a lot to vie for my attention. The table itself is painted red, green, and white to resemble the Italian flag. Historic photos decorate the wall space behind the cash register and the counter, where there is often a convivial line of hungry customers waiting to order. A flock of ceramic chickens adds a curious flair to the top of a soda machine, and figurines of Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Durante, and other celebrities keep watch from atop an industrial fridge. The whole place smells intoxicatingly of savory spices.
In the middle of the shop, central support posts boast Sharpie signatures of tourists and locals who have frequented the place since it reopened in this new location after Hurricane Ike in 2008. A deli case in front offers Italian meats, cheeses, and condiments, and behind me, industrial wire shelves hold such essentials as jumbo jugs of spices, boxes of pasta, tins of olive oil, and jars of Maceo’s Tomato Gravy, a classic marinara sauce that was supposedly a favorite of bandleader Guy Lombardo. According to owner Ronnie Maceo, who makes the rounds of customers’ tables while his daughter Concetta wrangles the back of the house, Lombardo stipulated in his contract that he wouldn’t take the stage at the family’s Hollywood Dinner Club without first having a plate of spaghetti and meatballs made with the stuff.
The tomato gravy is quite good, so the Guy Lombardo story could be true. But there are a lot of stories at Maceo’s. After all, Ronnie and Concetta are relatives of Rosario Maceo, the Sicilian barber-turned-bootlegger who, along with his brother Sam, were undisputed dons of the island’s lucrative bootlegging and gambling syndicate well into the 1940s and ’50s.
By the time my mouthwatering muffaletta arrives and I’ve polished off as much as I can, they’ve shared tales about Sam Maceo’s friendship with Frank Sinatra and how Sam and Rosario sent conciliatory fur coats to the wives of gamblers who’d lost their fortunes at the Maceos’ craps tables. They also tell me that the Maceo family originated the muffaletta sandwich in the first place.
Those are fighting words, I think: The classic muffaletta—a round loaf stuffed with ham, capicollo, soppressata, provolone cheese, and olive spread—is usually associated with New Orleans, and especially with the French Quarter’s famed Central Grocery, which claims to have invented it. Not so, say the Maceos.
As Ronnie tells it, in 1973 he was wrapping up a stint in the Merchant Marine and had some money burning a hole in his pocket when his uncle Bob took him to a dive bar near 20th and Postoffice streets. Bob told young Ronnie to look carefully at the mahogany bar and the curved booths.
“What am I looking at?” Ronnie remembers asking.
“Don’t you recognize it?” asked Bob. “It’s all the stuff from the Turf Tap Room.”
The Turf had been part of the Maceos’ casino operation during the heady days of island vice, and Ronnie bought the bar and its furnishings. “I called it the Little Turf,” says Ronnie. “Pretty soon, my dad told me I needed a featured sandwich down here. He said that when he was a kid in New Orleans in the late 1920s, he used to make this sandwich called a muffaletta with his uncle Tony Lavoi. They’d sell ’em at the corner of Royal and Dumaine. So he tells me to go get this and that, and I did. The Turf’s long gone, but the muffaletta recipe is exactly the same. We haven’t changed a thing.”
And, I think, why would they? Few sandwiches have such convoluted parentage, travel so well, and taste so delicious.
On a second visit, though, because I’ve already tried the muffaletta and still have a half-jar of Maceo’s surprisingly versatile olive spread in the fridge at home, I order the Italian, a delicious belt-buster of a sandwich made with mortadella, soppressata, salami, and provolone on French bread. While I wait, sipping a housemade ginger-flavored Italian soda (“the secret is a little bit of half-and-half,” Concetta tells me), the line at the counter grows long. Amid the sandwiches and cannoli delivered to happy diners, I witness friendly claps on the back, recipes shared, gossip both refuted and confirmed, and local politics discussed with a wink and the occasional eye roll.
I could hang out here all day.