I definitely pissed off a member of the Bamonte family. I didn’t mean to do it. I was trying to explain to Nicole Bamonte that I’m writing about how I will try, and likely enjoy, any establishment that displays one or more autographed photos of a cast member from The Sopranos, that it’s a seal of approval for me when I walk into a place in the Tri-State area and see a glossy with Vincent Pastore or Drea de Matteo looking down at me. “That means the place will probably be good,” I said to the great-granddaughter of the founder of the Williamsburg red sauce landmark.
She just stares at me for a second, the kind of stare that is meant to offer the person who said something stupid an opportunity to redeem themselves.
“I mean, I didn’t need to watch The Sopranos to know this place is great…”
Mercifully, Bamonte has to attend to the business of showing guests to their table, so I slink back to the bar and order a martini. I wasn’t lying. I’d started going to Bamonte’s around the time when show used the restaurant to film a scene, when the New York Times ran the story, “The Soprano Gang Drops By for Linguine and Cannoli.”
I ask the bartender, George, if customers still come in based on the slight connection to the show, 20 years after it helped launch the era of prestige television we’re still living through. He smiles and confidently replies, “Oh yeah.”
The other person sitting at the bar, a slight woman with long blonde hair and an orange puffer coat interrupts us to tell me that after she and her then-fiancé moved in together up the street, they were always looking for a place to eat. The guy she’d go onto marry was obsessed with The Sopranos and found out about the old Italian spot’s connection to the show on a website. Now Bamonte’s, even with all the other options available in the neighborhood, is the place she tells me they go to the most. I’m told the photo of James Gandolfini that had graced the wall of Bamonte’s for over a decade actually fell off the wall last week, cracked, and has not been replaced — an event eerily timed with the 20th anniversary of the Sopranos premiere.
There is a deep connection between food — specifically Italian — and The Sopranos in the Tri-State area. For places like Bamonte’s, the connection is a little sliver of the restaurant’s history.
For Chris Leo, a wine importer born in New Jersey who found himself living in LA for a time, watching the show made him miss home. It was seeing The Sopranos for the first time that got him craving Italian food from his home state, something he decided to dive deep into when he moved back. “Just the whole idea of, like, the red sauce, no-frills Italian restaurant sort of thing,” he says. “When I came back I was excited to taste my way through those places and find ones are doing good stuff.”
There are more than a few people who feel the same way Leo does, seeking the Italian version of the Proustian response. The Sopranos is the show that begat everything to come in the aughts version of the Golden Age of Television, from Mad Men to Breaking Bad; The Wire to Game of Thrones. It changed the course of TV at the start of this new century. It was literary (the famous “Pine Barrens” episode feels like something Samuel Beckett could have written if he had a job in a television writers’ room), and it made the anti-hero, Tony, and his crew of murderous friends, a group of people you felt the entire range of emotions for, often in one episode.
Episodes juxtaposed the internal drama of the mob family with an exploration of the dynamics of Tony’s real family. The show also thoroughly covered Tony’s struggles with his own mental health, as well as people coping with the realities of the weird new millennium. It was often hilarious, but so rich with details that fans could obsess over the smallest things. And more often than not, food played a huge role in the plot.
“Food is a big deal to Tony and to his family,” says TV and film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, who, along with Alan Sepinwall, and help from show creator David Chase, wrote The Sopranos Sessions, a collection of essays breaking down each episode. Seitz brings up one specific dish: ziti. We’re shown early on what a brat Tony’s son, A.J., is when he asks, “So what? No fuckin’ ziti now?” in front of his parents and a priest, Father Phil. It’s also the reason why the same priest comes to the house when Tony is away, ends up drinking too much and sleeping over, leaving Tony no ziti when he returns home the next morning. And when family capo Bobby Baccalieri shares the ziti his late wife left him in the freezer with Tony’s sister, Janice, it’s how we know they finally start connecting as a couple.
“He’s always eating,” Seitz says of Tony Soprano. “He’s at Vesuvio, he’s got the napkin tucked into his shirt. He’s having a conversation with people and he’s eating: He’s got a dish of pasta or a sandwich in his hands.” Seitz estimates that around 70 percent of the show’s most important conversations occur around a dinner table.
For as long as I can recall, I’ve had this strange obsession with seeking out landmarks from my favorite films and television shows. I grew up driving past the house from Home Alone in the Chicago suburbs, but only just recently drove past the nearby home from the 1980 Oscar-winning film that I love, Ordinary People. I can give you directions to the Harlem home that Royal Tenenbaum bought “on Archer Avenue in the winter of his 35th year.” I looked into staying a night in the bed and breakfast Bill Murray lived in over and over and over again in Groundhog Day. I drove three hours out of my way to see the real Florida town that was used as the reality TV world of The Truman Show. And my wife has definitely gotten mad at me more than once for taking an extra-long route because I want to see as many of the locations used by David Lynch in Los Angeles that I can find.
I have this weird fixation on seeing these landmarks in real life, but what I’m not interested in is eating in places associated with movies or television shows. No Seinfeld diner or Mystic Pizza, although I first went to Katz’s when I was a little kid before I saw When Harry Met Sally, so the iconic deli is okay. Most food places that draw large numbers of tourists for something other than food tend to be mediocre at best. I avoid restaurants like the Cheers bar in Boston, and I cross the road when I walk by the West Village cupcake place made famous by Sex in the City (I used to work there when I was in my 20s).
There are a few exceptions to this rule. I started going to J.G. Melon on the Upper East Side because it’s featured in Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan. The Prince, the Los Angeles restaurant and bar that’s been featured in everything from Chinatown to New Girl, is my idea of a perfect-looking place.
And, most of all, I will eat anywhere featured on The Sopranos or that — per my rule I tried talking about at Bamonte’s — has more than one autographed photo of a cast member on its wall. That’s why, on a really cold November morning, I found myself driving from my home in Brooklyn into New Jersey to get a slice of pizza.
It takes about 20 minutes to get to Pizza Land from New York City if traffic isn’t so bad. I take the Holland Tunnel. From Lower Manhattan, it would have been at least an extra 25 minutes — not counting whatever unforeseen calamities await any person who chooses to drive a car through New York City on a Saturday — if I took the Lincoln Tunnel, Tony Soprano’s route westward into New Jersey in the show’s opening credits. I’m making my way to the slice shop in North Arlington, New Jersey, one of the few remaining restaurants on my checklist of must-visit places connected in some way to the show.
Tony’s crew, his family, and his enemies are all over the fake-wood walls of the small slice spot. There are little pictures and newspaper clippings that document Pizza Land’s connection. There’s a great big homemade black and white banner with Gandolfini’s face that says his name and “1961 — 2013.” Even the root beer bottles come with customized labels featuring the establishment’s name and silhouettes of what is obviously the Sopranos crew above a pizza pie.
“That’s important to this area, the people around here,” says a guy named Chris, who has lived his entire life a few blocks up the road. “Everybody knows what this place [Pizza Land] is because it’s like the first thing you see when you put the show on.” At 23, he’s barely three years older than the show, and says that although he’s never watched it, it’s on his list simply because of the small connection to his hometown pizza place. I ask him what he thinks of the pizza, and he tells me, “It’s great.” I can’t really argue with him. My slice is a firm, Halloween-orange-and-brown triangle with the perfect cheese and sauce ratio. Oil drips off of it, but it’s hardly soggy. It’s a perfectly good slice of pizza, all I ever really want out of my life. I imagine the fictional Tony, on his way home from a meeting or strangling somebody to death, would have stopped here and felt some peace.
Pizza Land is what I call a “Sopranos-approved Restaurant” — a clever name, I know. My obsession is not just with places that were featured on the show, but also spots that cast members have been known to frequent. It started after my second viewing of the series, as I happened to end up in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn for some Saturday morning errands. I figured if I was to endure the hellscape known as Ikea during the weekend, I deserved a sandwich, or maybe two, and parked a block away from the big Italian flag-colored green, red, and white building that houses Defonte’s.
I’d been to Defonte’s once before, walking about 40 minutes from Green-Wood Cemetery to the sandwich shop that’s been an institution since the 1920s, lured by the promise of an excellent pepper and eggs sandwich. I was also interested in a couple of myths that connected the place to pop culture touchstones I hold dear, namely On the Waterfront and 30 Rock. What I’d heard was that Arthur Miller, while working on the original script for what would eventually become Elia Kazan’s 1954 masterpiece, ate there a few times while getting the lay of the land. I heard this from a friend’s father who was around six or seven when it supposedly happened, and I’d never heard anybody else tell the story, but I was intrigued enough, and made even more so when I heard the famous “Teamster Sandwich” from the “Sandwich Day” episode of the popular NBC sitcom that Liz Lemon craves all year was supposedly from Defonte’s. (While I’ve never been able to verify the Miller story, internet sleuths have tried to debunk the Defonte’s-30 Rock connection and say that the “secret” sandwiches were actually inspired by Fiore’s in Hoboken, New Jersey.)
On this visit, with The Sopranos fresh in my mind, Defonte’s was far less packed with guys in hard hats, neighborhood locals, and food tourists than the last time I’d been there. I ordered two smaller sandwiches (broccoli rabe and the eggplant), each the size of a large sandwich anywhere else. I took my spot with my seltzer across from the counter, and started to eat. As I sunk into my first bite, I looked up and noticed they had more than a few autographed pictures of Sopranos cast members, including one of Gandolfini right under a signed glossy of Frank Sinatra, a spot that I have to imagine is about as cherished as something blessed by the Pope to some Catholics.
Defonte’s has the widest array of Sopranos cast members photos on the wall that I’ve found so far. You have Michael Imperioli right below Dustin Hoffman, and Vincent Curatola (who played rival mobster Johnny Sack) beneath CBS New York anchorman David Diaz. There’s even a shot of some members not touched by a pen — it’s just there, as a sign of respect. I could say the Defonte’s family is just good at getting celebrities to give up their signature (there are also autographed photos of Pamela Anderson and Yankees slugger Roger Maris), but the fact is that I eat a lot of sandwiches, and Defonte’s, with or without several shots of guys who played mobsters on TV looking down at me, is one of my favorite places to go to get them. It got me thinking that there is something to be said about establishments connected to The Sopranos, either featured on the show or places that display autographed pictures of cast members that act as a seal of approval. You know the place is going to be good, because Tony and his crew knew how to eat.
As Seitz points out, mob movies and television shows tend to be good at whetting appetites: There’s Clemenza showing Michael Corleone how to make meatballs in The Godfather; Donnie Brasco hanging out at Katz’s; and maybe the most popular, Paul Sorvino’s garlic slicing scene in Goodfellas, where his character uses a razor blade to get them as thin as possible so they just melt when they hit the pan. Yet Seitz can see a connection between what The Sopranos ate — how the food looked and what it meant — with the shows that followed and learned from it: from the infamous Game of Thrones “Red Wedding” to the number of scenes aimed at pleasing food-obsessives on Billions. He points out, however, that it’s the little things that made the food Tony and his family ate stand out even more, and cemented their Italian-American identity. “They’re eating traditional Italian dishes and what are they drinking? Coca-Cola,” says Seitz.
The Sopranos is, in many ways, a show about a family trying to assimilate. Tony isn’t an immigrant or even first-generation American, but he’s the first in his family to make it to the suburbs. His kids eat Italian, but they’re definitely American. In that respect, The Sopranos can trace its lineage back to a series like Gertrude Berg’s early-American television show The Goldbergs (not to be confused with the contemporary version) about a Jewish family in post-war America. It also shares a thematic connection to a show like Fresh Off the Boat, based off Eddie Huang’s memoir, which depicts the gulf between Taiwanese immigrant parents and their American-raised kids. It’s always the little things that explain the culture clash. And in many of these shows, especially The Sopranos, food often accomplishes this.
While the building that played host to the fictional Satriale’s Pork Store is long gone, as is Manolo’s Restaurant in Elizabeth, which was used as the location for Vesuvio (Artie Bucco’s place where Tony’s families — his real one and his mob one — often dined), there are still plenty of establishments connected to the show that are still functioning and, in many cases, really good. That’s probably why walking into an Italian restaurant in the Tri-State area and finding an autographed picture of Marlon Brando, Ray Liotta, or the stars of other famous mob movies or television shows isn’t something that happens as often as discovering photos of people who had a part on The Sopranos.
The show’s dedicated fandom gets people out to Bloomfield, New Jersey to take pictures in the booth Tony and his family sat in while “Don’t Stop Believin’” played at Holsten’s Ice Cream, Chocolate & Restaurant. It’s noticeable when you see people in the huge crowds of locals waiting to eat Sicilian slices at L & B Spumoni Gardens deep in Brooklyn taking selfies next to what looks like a small shrine, with an old photo of the restaurant in the middle, and autographed glossies from Tony Sirico, Steve Schirripa, and, of course, Gandolfini orbiting around it. And sometimes you can even find a framed photo of cast members dropping in for a meal, like the one of Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Federico Castelluccio, and Steve Buscemi with the owners of Mario’s in the Bronx.
In another case of me going to an iconic neighborhood place because of its slight connection to the show, I once made my way to Brennan and Carr on Nostrand Avenue in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn. I’d had it on my list of places to try, but finally decided to make the trek after I read in a newspaper that Gandolfini went to the famed hot roast beef sandwich spot a few times right before he passed away.
The 1950s police drama The Naked City famously started with the line, “There are eight million stories in the naked city.” While I’m guessing there aren’t as many Sopranos stories floating around Manhattan, I’d be willing to bet that if you lived in the Tri-State area —especially New York — while the show was on, you probably have a tale of seeing one of the actors out, eating, drinking, or maybe both. Mine was at the notorious Lower East Side dive Mars Bar around noon, after it opened up for the day. I walked in, and the only customer was a large guy in a baseball hat at the end of the bar who was silently nursing a drink. He must have walked in just as they unlocked the door. I remember looking at him and I couldn’t see his face, but there was something about him: He was definitely somebody, maybe. Nah, it couldn’t be him, I thought.
I tried not to pay the guy much mind, but I know for a fact he was listening to the story my friend launched into about her friend’s boyfriend who got into a fight at a bar; one of her other friends bailed him out, and that’s how they started to piece together the guy and her friend were having an affair — or something like that. It was the kind of story with a lot of twists and turns, names of people popping in once, and I recall my friend stopping and telling other stories for context that didn’t really have much to do with the tale about the fight and the affair. It was all very confusing, took about 15 minutes to explain, and when it was done, the guy at the end of the bar got up slowly, walked towards the door, and on his way out asked the bartender to clarify one of the details. James Gandolfini nodded his head, laughed and said, “That’s nuts,” before walking out.
I think about that as I’m sitting beneath the lone picture of Gandolfini at a table in the bar area of Bamonte’s. George the bartender comes over and takes my order (I usually go with the chicken parm), and I sit there for a few minutes looking at my phone as the room starts to fill up. Two guys I’d clock in their 60s walk past me and one of them spots the glossy. He tells his friend he once met the late actor, that he was a nice guy, and that Gandolfini chatted with the man and his wife for a few minutes. Where did he meet him? A restaurant, of course.