I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York and a lot of the Italian-American community there has its roots in Calabria – my grandparents came from that part of Italy. My neighbourhood, which still hasn't changed that much, was Bensonhurst and, at that time, everyone there was Italian.
Families would always eat together on Sundays and us kids would be playing ball in the street – everything like slap ball, stick ball, punch ball. There just always seemed to be so many kids in my neighbourhood, big families, but it was still a very close-knit community.
Along the main avenue in Bensonhurst at that time there were so many different kinds of stores; pork stores, butchers' shops, little grocers, bakeries. All these shops sold authentic Calabrian and Italian food. The area was pretty middle class but most people didn't go out to eat in restaurants; they'd normally cook at home. My grandmother was always like "Why the hell do I want to go out and eat in a restaurant when I can make it right here?". And she would make it all. Home-made pasta, meat balls, everything. She'd cook up tripe, a Calabrian speciality, for my grandfather, which I never ate as a kid, and it would stink the house up for hours. She'd do stuff like huge legs of lamb and even snails. It was all there.
Food was a such big deal when I was a kid. There'd be huge gatherings every Sunday with 50 people eating together and each one was like Thanksgiving – the guys would be watching the ball game; the women would be in the kitchen cooking up a fantastic meal; the kids would be playing in the yard.
It's still a lot like that and, even today, one thing you'd never hear an Italian from Brooklyn say is "How can you eat at a time like this?". We eat when we're happy; we eat when we're sad. After a funeral the big question is always "Where are we gonna eat?". In Brooklyn, in Italian culture, wakes are a big deal and the whole funeral thing was known as "two to five and seven to nine," because of the hours. The idea was that there would be a two-hour break so that the family could go and eat. Everybody at the funeral would always be talking about what was the best local place to go out. Consequently, in Brooklyn, a lot of restaurants became established near the busier funeral parlours. We ate at baptisms, christenings, communions, when we got divorced – always food, food, food and more food.
When I reached 23 in 1980, I moved to Las Vegas, where I initially worked as a bouncer in various clubs before progressing up to being the entertainment director at the Riviera hotel and casino. I moved back to New York in 2000 when I got the role of Bobby Bacala in The Sopranos. The city had changed while I was gone. It had become a really great city. It had been cleaned up and became a lot of fun.
Coming back and being in The Sopranos was also amazing – I had access to all the best that New York had to offer. One thing I really noticed when I came back was that were a lot more restaurants opening. People were eating out much more and being more daring. Personally I am not that adventurous but I like Mexican and sushi. Funny to think these things were hardly heard of in the 1970s.
One place in Manhattan for sushi I really love – I know you have one in London – is Nobu. Their food is superb. For Mexican my wife likes to take me to Dos Caminos – it has to serve up some of the best Mexican in the city and we always have a great time there.
I've written three books about my taste for food and good wine and good living. My youth had a big influence on this. In the third, The Goomba Diet – just so you know, a Goomba is an Italian-American colloquialism that is sometimes considered as a derogatory term but really means a pal, a friend, a compadre – I interviewed a lot of people from The Sopranos: Lorraine Bracco, Stevie Van Zandt, Michael Imperioli. I asked them what was their idea of a really great night out and they all said pretty much the same thing: "A couple of good friends, good conversation, a great meal and some nice wine." I mean what else is there?
It's very easy to find a good convivial restaurant in New York where you can have this kind of evening: where the owners are nice and friendly, help you feel at home. Everyone has their favourite places and I have mine. I live in Battery Park in downtown Manhattan in the Tribeca area and there are a lot of places I love around there, particularly in Little Italy, which is nearby. And I take the kids, we have some good laughs, good food, good wine – like I said, what else is there?
One of my favourites is a place called Il Cortile which is on Mulberry Street. This is the main drag in Little Italy and you'll find dozens and dozens of Italian restaurants in this area. Il Cortile has been around for more than 30 years. It was also the main hang-out for the cast of The Sopranos – we'd use it for charity work and dinners. One fundraising thing we'd do was that people would pay up to $50,000 to have dinner with us.
We also had this tradition that when your character got whacked on the show the rest of the cast would take you out to dinner there. We had to stop it though as it got out to the press that we did this and they'd be hanging out trying to figure out who would be next in line to get whacked.
We still eat at home, especially during the winter months. And on Sundays we still get together sometimes – a lot of Italian families will go out and take an early dinner at a restaurant then go back to a friend's house. I get together with Michael Imperioli and his wife and kids quite a lot.
It is still easy to find some great Italian delis in New York. My wife is Mexican and she is a great cook. She'll head over to Brooklyn where there are a lot of delis to get the raw ingredients. One of the best on Manhattan is Faicco's on Bleecker Street in the Village; they've got another branch in Brooklyn as well. They make their own sausage which is very very good.
But we like certain restaurants for certain things. There's this excellent Italian steakhouse over in the Meatpacking District called Macelleria. It's a Tuscan-style steak house and the guy who runs the place, Sergio, is from Tuscany. He serves the best steak in New York City. They use such great seasoning and marinade – the ribeye steak is awesome especially with the bone still in it. They also do a lot of great pasta and other Italian food.
There's another fantastic Italian place we like to go to called Peasant, which is downtown on Elizabeth Street. They do dishes such as goat meat lasagne, tripe and stuffed quails. You'll find pasta, fish dishes and rabbit and it's all a little out of the ordinary, you know, based mainly on Italian peasant food. It is often voted in the top 10 restaurants in New York.
Brooklyn is still a great place to pick up all kinds of traditional American-Italian food. For instance, if you want to have the best pizza in New York then there is only one place you have to go and that is L&B Spumoni Gardens over on 86th Street in Bensonhurst. The slice there is legendary and it's been a favourite for as long as I can remember. In fact, I think the place has been open for almost 70years so it's something of a landmark.
There's also a great place for a "hero" sandwich called Dafonte which is on Columbia Street in Red Hook, a district in Brooklyn. The subs there are the best pretty much anywhere. They do eggplant parmegan [sic], veal parmegan [sic], meatballs, everything. As, I said it's food, food, food and more food.
Further viewing The last series of 'The Sopranos' starts today, 10pm, E4