RICH BUNNELLMy New York friends gave me looks ranging from quizzical to repulsed when I told them that my third destination would be New Jersey. Exploring the ’burbs within New York is one thing, but the reactions I received to crossing the Hudson were akin to if someone visited the Bay Area and told me they were stoked about their trip to Stockton. So why this particular excursion? Simple — I was born under a bad sign with a blue moon in my eyes.
As the absolute waspiest of agnostics, raised in suburbia and educated not far from it, I’ve never really felt a shared religious or cultural heritage. Instead, pop culture has filled that role for me, with The Sopranos sitting proudly at the top of the heap. As a result, I feel like traveling the meadowlands and sidewalks of North Jersey is probably the closest thing to a pilgrimage I will ever get to experience.
I’m not just being coy for the sake of making a funny blog post; one of my favorite characteristics of David Chase’s heralded series is its geographical consistency. It always disappoints me when a show’s identity is firmly rooted in its sense of place, but due to budgetary constraints, another city is hired as a fill-in. NBC’s Parenthood takes place in my adopted hometown of Berkeley, but most of it is filmed in Los Angeles, so I know that, real as the trees are, they’re still just one big soundstage.
The Sopranos, on the other hand, lives and breathes Jersey. The show’s famous title sequence, which I’ve never skipped and never will, depicts crime boss Tony Soprano emerging from New York’s Lincoln Tunnel and taking the New Jersey Turnpike to his suburban palace. Numerous Garden State landmarks zoom by Tony’s window, and what fascinates me about the choice of imagery is that it isn’t scattershot — this is what Tony would see during an actual commute from New York to the Soprano house’s physical location.
So what’s a happy wanderer to do? Obviously, walking the turnpike would be an illegal, suicidal fool’s errand, but I could at least walk what I imagined to be Tony’s commute once it hit the (relative) safety of the Jersey streets. Most of the opening sequence focuses on the Turnpike, but from Googling the locations of a few small businesses, I ascertained that Tony most likely exited at the Belleville Turnpike and took Route 506 to his North Caldwell neighborhood.*
I knew I’d need food to kick off my journey, so I intentionally picked a New Jersey Transit stop that was only a couple of miles from Pizzaland, one of the storefronts on Tony’s hometown tour. I don’t have a foodie’s mind for planning trips, so I don’t have any other Jersey pizza to compare it to, but it’s $1 a slice, and it tastes and feels like the greasy, Platonic ideal of the pies you get at Chuck-E-Cheese.
Route 506 stretched on for miles from there with little variation, but it was never boring — at least, from a Sopranos fanboy’s perspective. The weather was dreary and misty, a tone that several of the series’ best episodes employed skillfully to parallel turbulence within Tony’s mob and family lives. I’m thinking particularly of the season 1 episode “Isabella,” where our erstwhile mob boss, brain fried by a lithium prescription, wanders out to the local newsstand and barely escapes with his life.
Farther inland, in suburban Verona, I took a three-block detour to visit the home of family matriarch Livia Soprano, probably the second most iconic house in the series, mostly because nearly the entire family has lived in it at some point by show’s end. Just around the corner was the home of cuddly mob teddy bear Bobby Baccalieri, but I opted not to take a photo because some kids were playing outside.
Appetizers complete, after a lengthy trek up County Route 527, sweat pouring from my brow, breathing so heavily I might as well have been James Gandolfini himself, I finally, finally reached my destination: Casa Soprano! I didn’t want to move in too close and disturb the residents, possibly earning a beating from Furio Giunta, but I did bring along the Newark Star-Ledger so I could properly enshrine the experience.
This walk really beat the gabagool out of me, but it was worth it for what might turn out to be the defining experience of my 20s, with the possible exception of that time I got married. Join me next time as I pay homage to The Wire by exploring the corners and vacants of West Baltimore!**
* Interestingly enough, Tony’s commute isn’t very efficient, as Google Maps informs me that he could have avoided the Turnpike altogether — as well as a lot of stop-and-go driving — if he’d just taken NJ-3 W. But it certainly would have made for a much less quintessentially Jersey title sequence.
** Trip may or may not be fictional.