This Thursday, January 10, marks the 20th anniversary of the first airing of The Sopranos, HBO’s culture-changing, awards-gobbling series about a suburban mobster struggling with a mother lode of emotional issues while trying to keep his family (as well as his Family) together. Starring the late James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano; Edie Falco as his wife, Carmela; Lorraine Bracco as his therapist, Dr. Melfi; and a ragtag troupe of journeymen character actors doing some of the best work of their careers, the show split television into two eras: Before and after The Sopranos.
One of the series’s signature elements, telegraphed right up front in its opening credits, was its location in New Jersey, home of Turnpike strip clubs, tacky McMansions, Pizza Land, Fountains of Wayne, and the Pine Barrens. Created by Jersey boy–done–good David Chase, the show was Garden State to its roots, yet throughout the six seasons, New York played a significant role. (Not for nothing was the view of the lower Manhattan skyline from across the Hudson River featured prominently in that same opening.)
“Manhattan served two main functions on the show,” explains Matt Zoller Seitz, coauthor, with Alan Sepinwall, of the new book The Sopranos Sessions. “First, it was an object of aspiration, the place where you go when nobody can deny that you’ve truly arrived. Second, and somewhat connected to the first thing, Manhattan is the place where the New York Mob holds court. Some of these guys got their starts in Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx, but it’s Little Italy in Manhattan where they do business.”
While the show ended with a still-controversial flourish in 2007, Seitz, the TV critic for New York magazine and editor at large of Rogerebert.com, was willing to indulge in some fanfic about where Tony and his crew might fit in in the real New York of 2019: “I think they would’ve done something connected to the World Trade Center redevelopment, which turned it into a luxury mall with a gravesite attached. There are some lovely architectural touches in there, but the commercial content of it is basically Beverly Hills, and I can see Tony and the guys somehow angling to get a piece of that action, maybe even being instrumental in pushing it toward commercialism so they can get a bigger skim. That would have brought them into conflict with the New York Mob again, and they each would have had grounds to claim legitimacy, because that site was developed by the Port Authority, which is a collaboration between New York and New Jersey.
“And they would have been royally pissed that Uber and Lyft, which are international companies, came in and decimated the cab and livery industry,” Seitz continues, “because it’s harder to shake down entities that huge, as Tony’s guys discovered when they tried to shake down a Starbucks-like coffee shop and were told that a brick through the front window wouldn’t even be noticed back at headquarters.”
But before we can predict the NYC spots the famiglia would frequent today, let’s look back at their haunts of the past when Seitz and Sepinwall present The Sopranos Film Festival at the IFC Center, January 9–14, to celebrate the series and their book. As you (re)watch, look for these five New York locations used in the drama and learn why they mattered according to the man who literally wrote the book on the series.
The ultraluxe, old-school Central Park South hotel (and onetime “ultimate trophy” of Donald Trump, who couldn’t keep up payments and had to file for prepackaged bankruptcy on it in 1992) was used twice in the series. In season 4, episode 12, Carmela and her mafia princess daughter, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), enjoy an annual lunch in honor of Eloise, the plucky protagonist of Hilary Knight’s book series. In season 5, episode 11, Tony stays in a massive suite at the Plaza after a falling-out with his wife.
Matt Zoller Seitz: The Plaza is a perfect recurring location because it externalizes the Sopranos’ desire to buy their way into so-called polite society. It’s redolent of old money and an old New York that the Soprano family only has access to because of Tony’s wads of ill-gotten cash. Eloise is exactly the kind of children’s character that someone like Carmela, who reads voraciously and wants to be thought of as “classy,” would pick as a bonding icon while raising Meadow. And while the exact reason for Tony choosing the Plaza is never articulated, we can surmise that he went there because he’s been hearing about it from Meadow and Carmela for probably 20 years. It’s a brand that signifies luxury, classiness, and a total escape from the gangster life.
In season 2, episode 7, Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), Tony’s nephew-by-marriage and a rising mafioso with Hollywood aspirations, has a fling at the then-new lower Manhattan boutique hotel with his cousin’s fiancé, a Hollywood development executive played by Alicia Witt.
Seitz: The Soho Grand Hotel opened three years before season 1 aired, in 1996. And it was a big deal locally, because residents of SoHo had successfully opposed the construction of seven other hotels on that very spot, fearing it would glitz up the neighborhood, which is exactly what happened. It almost immediately became a favorite of visiting Hollywood royalty because of its proximity to SoHo, the West Village, and Wall Street, which of course is where the studios and networks ultimately get the money to make all this popular culture.
The dark wood interior of this Little Italy mainstay (it has operated under a few names in the same location since 1908) was used as the Averna Social Club, home to the New York Mafia, in several episodes of The Sopranos. (It was also used in The Godfather: Part III, the much-maligned final installment of the movie series that looms over The Sopranos as both influence and to-be-slain father figure.)
Seitz: All you need to know about Little Italy on The Sopranos is displayed in that final scene in the very last episode, when a double-decker tour bus comes roaring through the neighborhood, and the driver announces that they’re now entering Little Italy, then a few seconds later says they’re leaving it. There’s almost no authentic Italian or Italian-American presence there anymore, except for some die-hard holdouts. It’s a place where a 60-something Mafia boss would hang out for reasons of nostalgia rather than practicality. You hang out at a spot like that because it’s the sort of place where New York gangsters are supposed to hang out.
Located beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, this restaurant predates the naming of its neighborhood, Dumbo, by several decades. Known for its Michelin-starred chefs, postcard-worthy views, and serious damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the River Café was used as a meeting place for one of Tony’s guys, Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico), and the head of the New York Mafia, John Sacrimoni (aka Johnny Sack, played by Vincent Curatola), in season 4, episode 7.
Seitz: Taking a guy like Paulie to a restaurant like this is a power move, even if Johnny doesn’t consciously intend it as such. It’s a classy joint that deliberately hasn’t evolved much since its opening in 1977, and because it’s nestled under the Brooklyn Bridge, it has a spectacular view. You can see lower Manhattan (and, by implication, Wall Street), but it’s in Brooklyn, which can feel a little bit more intimate and less snooty even today, when the distinctions between Brooklyn and Manhattan are being steadily erased by gentrification. If you take a New Jersey Mob captain to this kind of restaurant, it’s like you’re a prince inviting another prince’s disloyal knight to eyeball a much more splendid kingdom and make some important personal decisions.
While not technically in the city, this Great Neck, Long Island, catering hall is too amazing not to include. Dripping with gilt and sporting a two-story (!) chandelier and ample parking, Leonard’s is the venue for the gaudy wedding reception of Johnny Sack’s daughter, Allegra Marie (Caitlin Van Zandt), in season 6, episode 5. Too bad it’s also the spot the U.S. Marshals decide to arrest Johnny.
Seitz: A perfect spot for a Mob wedding, and not just because it calls itself a palazzo. This is an opulent space in an area that’s always been known for its ethnic diversity but that was developed into its modern state by Jewish-Americans and immigrants. It’s a huge space that, like a lot of big East Coast banquet halls, has that feeling of wanting to be an affordable version of a European palace or somebody’s idea of one.