The history of Galveston’s Maceo family is the stuff of legend; filled with tales of hardscrabble, early-20th century immigrant tenacity and survival, with a dash of organized crime thrown in. These days, however, the name is associated with Maceo’s Spice & Import Co., home of the muffuletta.
Brothers Rosario and Sam Maceo immigrated from Sicily around 1910, and by the 1940s were the kingpins of the island’s once booming bootlegging and gambling scene. They founded the Hollywood Dinner Club and later, the legendary Balinese Room, where performers like Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire and Peggy Lee held court. While those freewheeling days would come to an end, the Maceos established an enduring legacy in the restaurant industry, a legacy continued by Ronnie Maceo; Rosario’s son and owner of the Market Street shop famous for Maceo’s Tomato Gravy, olive oil and the best darned muffulettas you’ll ever eat.
“Our muffuletta recipe goes back to New Orleans in The Depression,” Ronnie tells me. “My dad worked with a guy making olive dressing and baking bread named Tony Lavoi. They used to sell muffulettas on the corner of Royal and Dumaine streets. It’s probably the original muffuletta.”
Ronnie’s “probably” qualifier is key, as the origin of the sandwich—a round loaf stuffed with ham, capicollo, soppressata, provolone cheese and olive spread—is the subject of much conjecture. The folks in New Orleans claim it as their own, too. But Ronnie says his father gave him the recipe around 1970 when Ronnie owned a “beer joint” in Galveston that sold sandwiches and he’s guarded the details of the recipe as if they were the nuclear codes ever since.
“It’s a pretty closely guarded secret,” he says. “Since I first saw the recipe, nothing’s changed.”
While Ronnie won’t reveal the secrets of the recipe, he’s firm about what a real muffuletta must have: extra virgin olive oil.
Now, some people put stuff in there like carrots and celery, but that’s just filler. Some people are making it with soybean and canola oil. That’s not how you do it,” he declares.
Rosario passed away in 2009 at age 91 and his granddaughter, Concetta, manages the store, which frees up Ronnie to work the room and chat up the clientele. The shelves are stocked with jars of Maceo’s unique spices, including Jalapeno Garlic Salt and Jamaican Jerk, in addition to the renowned tomato gravy. The lunch menu includes a variety of sandwiches, such as roast beef, Po Boys and the Spaisano, but the star attraction is always the muffuletta, which has fans even in New Orleans.
“During Mardi Gras,” Ronnie says, “we probably ship 150 to 200 of them to New Orleans.”