After the death of Sopranos star James Gandolfini, Douglas Rogers joins a tour of the show's familiar New Jersey landmarks.
On a crowded corner of 39th Street and 7th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, a roly-poly Italian-American man is selling Sopranos memorabilia to tourists from the back of a van. He has books, posters, New York number plates saying GOOMBAH and FUHGEDDABOUDIT, and signed colour photographs of scenes from the show. In one photo, Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini, is standing with lieutenants Christopher and Vito outside Satriale's Pork Store.
Then I do a double take: the man selling the merchandise is not some cut-rate midtown hustler - it's Vito. (Or, should I say, Joseph Gannascoli, who played him.)
Carrying that day's copy of the New York Post, I queue for a signed photo. A big mistake. When Vito sees the rag, what comes out of his mouth could have been scripted for the show: "That motha----ing piece of ---- paper!" he rants. "The ---- they're writing about James! What he ate, what he drank, how overweight he was ... Makes me wanna ..." He finally calms down enough to sign a photograph for me and says he hopes I enjoy the tour.
It's 10 o'clock on Saturday morning, four days since Gandolfini's death of a heart attack in a Rome hotel room, and I'm here for the weekly On Location Tours' jaunt through the New Jersey sites of the acclaimed HBO television show. It's the first tour since Gandolfini died, and the mood is sombre. The 50-seat bus is full. The four-hour trip will take us through the industrial wastelands so distinctive of the show.
Our guide is Marc Baron, an actor and singer who had small parts in 13 episodes of the series, and has led the location tour since 2001. We make our way to the Lincoln Tunnel and New Jersey, the pulsating Woke Up This Morning our soundtrack, just as it is in the show's opening credits.
Baron clearly knows and loves the show, and he's also an entertainer, with a wry delivery. He tells behind-the-scenes stories of the show and cast, and runs a trivia competition. "Who said of Ginny Sacrimoni, 'She's so fat, she goes campin' and the bears have to hide their food'?"
"Paulie Walnuts!" a man says behind me. He turns out to be John Thompson, from Newcastle in England, who proceeds to get most of the other questions right, too.
Our first stop is a now-shuttered diner in some seedy no-man's-land. Christopher (played by Michael Imperioli) was shot outside it in the second season, and the brilliance of the tour is that after we see the location Baron plays a clip of the relevant scene.
Like Gandolfini, the show's creator, David Chase, is an Italian-American from New Jersey, and every Italian-American character on the show had to come from Jersey or New York. The fictitious site of Satriale's Pork Store, though, is in the predominantly Irish town of Kearny, our second stop. The local Irish-American Association were paid to hoist an Italian flag on shoot days and the crew would put the famous pig sign up on the store the day before shooting. "Like the flag at Buckingham Palace, locals knew Tony was coming to town when the pig went up," Baron says.
I pop into Big Stash's sandwich shop on the main street and order a salami sandwich. The walls are decked with pictures of the owner, Mike Trivic, with Gandolfini. Trivic tells me: "He would come in here a lot. Right outside my door is where Christopher stole all the newspapers in the first episode." The Catholic church across the street doubled as Father Phil's place of worship.
We drive through gritty sections of Newark, Harrison and Belleville, Baron pointing out sites used for Pussy's auto-body shop, Tony's gambling den, and AJ's school. Baron plays a clip and asks us if we recognise one of the extras in a high school scene with AJ. No one does. He says: "That young girl is better known today as Lady Gaga."
In a more upscale part of Kearny, we pass the Tudor mansion Tony drives past in the opening credits, and a short while later pull up outside Holsten's. The ice-cream parlour, which dates from 1939, became a cult destination for Sopranos fans after the final episode aired in 2007, and in the past four days it's become the site of a remarkable pilgrimage. "I started getting all these calls and text messages," co-owner Chris Carley says. "Then people started arriving. They haven't stopped."
Carley has placed a "Reserved" sign and a bouquet of flowers on the booth where Tony sat with Carmela and AJ in the final, enigmatic scene.
Holsten's became part of the tour only after the series ended; on the other hand our final stop, the Bada Bing!, the strip club the men hung out in, has been on the itinerary since the beginning.
We pull up outside a nondescript cinder-block building on the side of the busy Route 17. A roadside billboard for Satin Dolls reads: "the original Bada Bing", and under the main sign are the words: "Thank You Jimmy. Farewell Boss."
It's somewhat surreal to enter a dark strip club at 3 o'clock in the afternoon with 50 complete strangers - almost all of whom instantly recognise where they are without ever having been there. A shrine has been erected around the boss's corner bar stool: a framed portrait of a downcast Tony, a white rose, a Sopranos baseball cap, and a "SOPRANOS" New Jersey number plate. We have been warned that the dancers will not want to be photographed, but one is gyrating on a pole on the stage behind the bar, and another, Diana Lomoro, happily poses with members of our group by the shrine. "I was in three episodes," she says.
I introduce myself to the manager, Bill Pepe, and we talk in the kitchen, where a busboy chops potatoes with a meat cleaver. "I was at a benefit for the local police department when the news came in," Pepe says. "Everyone stopped for a moment of silence. The police loved Jim." He looks at the memorial by the bar and shakes his head. "It was a family atmosphere when they filmed here - and Jim was the captain."
We troop out into the sunlight and head back to New York, a song plays in my head, Don't Stop ... Telegraph, London
The Sopranos Sites Tour leaves on Saturdays at 10am from the corner of 39th Street and 7th Avenue: $US46. To book, contact On Location Tours, phone +1 212 683 2027; see onlocationtours.com.