Although The Sopranos is one of my favorite TV shows, I have never had much desire to immerse myself in its New Jersey setting. Yet as someone who recently became more invested thanks to a few enticing TikToks, I knew I had to do something drastic to prove my commitment.
On Jan. 11, one day after the mob drama premiered 25 years ago on HBO, I boarded a bus in Manhattan with On Location Tours to experience the show's setting firsthand along with a few dozen other fans. Our guide peppered us with trivia — most of which I hadn’t heard before. When you watch a show decades after it first aired, you tend to miss out on fun facts about how the series was originally pitched as a movie, or that a certain cast member may or may not have been affiliated with the Colombo crime family.
We weaved through Manhattan’s garment district, once a hot spot for mob activity until the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act took things down a notch in 1970. After traversing the Lincoln Tunnel, we emerged in industrial New Jersey with views of construction sites, factories and waste dumps.
We first got off the bus outside the Paul Bunyan-esque statue that appears briefly in the opening credits. From there, you can see the facade of the building used as Barone Sanitation, the fictional waste management company that Tony claims as his legitimate job to stay out of trouble. We rarely see him there, though, because he’s got a “family” to run.
There’s something especially desolate about the Garden State in winter. There aren’t any trees to break up steady views of parking lots, barbed wire fences and trucker hot spots. Power lines litter the horizon, and we’re reminded that New Jersey was once infamous for its excess of garbage dumps.
We don’t get to see the stately mansion Tony comes home to at the end of the opening credits. According to the tour guide, it’s in a private community and the homeowners were getting annoyed by fans who would show up in their bathrobes to pretend to pick up a paper at the end of the driveway.
We then head to the suburbs of Kearny, passing a number of overpasses and waterways where various characters were “whacked” or buried. At one stop, we walked to the edge of the Passaic River. To the left we were treated to a view of the Newark skyline so we could see where Tony grew up. To the right, a bridge where a confused Junior Soprano (Dominic Chianese) was picked up by police.
In town, we passed the mob’s favorite “casino,” a room above a spa that has enough space to play cards; the church where Carmela dumps a perfectly good plate of ziti after seeing her priest flirting with another dispirited mob wife and the pizza joint where Anthony Jr. orders a pie unique enough to get him in trouble when it's left at a crime scene.
But where we should encounter Satriale’s pork store — which served as the meeting place for mob members throughout the series — only a parking lot remains.
Knowing that something central to the show's plot is no longer there made me emotional. In every episode, James Gandolfini delivers an unforgettable performance. Knowing that he died only six years after the show ended tugs at my heartstrings. Tony is hardly an anti-hero. He’s a bona fide villain who’s murdered several people with his bare hands, and he frequently cheats on his long-suffering wife. His list of sins grows every hour. But Gandolfini plays him with such tenderness that I feel a strange fondness for him. The show’s over and the actor is gone.
Next we stopped at Holsten’s in Bloomfield, N.J. That’s the diner where the show’s final scene was filmed. I ordered onion rings — Tony says they’re the best — and we took turns sitting in the booth where Tony sat with Carmela and his son when the screen suddenly turned to black, infuriating HBO viewers in that last episode in 2007. The charming eatery pays tribute to the show with photos of the cast and plenty of merchandise for sale.
“I haven’t seen the show, don’t tell me what happens,” a young man eating with his friends in a booth said to our tour group. I technically haven’t seen it in full either, but I don’t defend him when my fellow fans snicker.
In January, HBO announced the official Sopranos TikTok account would be uploading a 25-second clip of every episode of the show in honor of its 25th anniversary. The announcement got immediate backlash — fans urged people to “just watch the f***ing show” and condemned the “extremely short attention spans” of social media users that they assumed prompted this.
It’s clearly a marketing tactic; I know this because I would have fallen for it myself if someone’s compelling fan edit hadn’t tipped me over the edge to viewership months ago.
My tour guide John DeFilippo told me he thought the announcement of an official Sopranos TikTok account was a joke at first. The more he considered it, he realized the show is rife with one-liners and humor that still resonates.
“A lot of humor I see in meme culture is literally Sopranos humor,” he said. “I think a lot of people who are discovering it now are in their mid-20s, realizing that this old show is actually relevant to their humor, but they have to be exposed to it first.”
He said it’s not uncommon for new viewers to cement their fandom with a N.J. visit, but it’s also a pilgrimage for the show’s most die-hard fans.
At least two couples on my excursion traveled from the U.K. specifically to tour Sopranos filming locations. One couple, Paul and Jenny Carter, came from England to celebrate his 50th birthday.
"It’s just brilliant. The dialogue, the acting ... everything,” Paul said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve watched it. I come home from work and it’s just on in the background.”
Not everyone loves The Sopranos. When it aired, some said it negatively portrayed both Italian Americans and New Jersey. Before the show’s third season, its crew attempted to get a permit to shoot an episode in the state’s famous Pine Barrens, but it was denied by Essex County Executive James Treffinger, who said The Sopranos “depicts an ethnic group in stereotypical fashion.” That didn’t stop the crew from picking another similar-looking location to film and naming it “Pine Barrens” anyway. It’s considered to be one of the series’ best episodes.
The final stop on the tour — the Bada Bing — didn’t leave much to the imagination. Silvio Dante (Steve Van Zant) owns the fictional strip club that serves as a popular meeting hub. The Bing scenes are filmed at a real-life gentleman’s club, Satin Dolls. It’s still open decades later — including at 1 p.m. on a Thursday.
I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside the club, but it felt familiar, being the first place we visited that appeared regularly on The Sopranos. TVs played different sports-centric stations as several lingerie-clad dancers swayed to a Five Finger Death Punch song. Some of my tour mates ordered drinks, and our tour guide told us that we could get a lap dance as long as we got back to the bus on time. I left my wallet on board, so I spent a lot of time alone with my thoughts, eyeing peeling leather furniture.
Much of The Sopranos’ charm comes from the fact that its setting is rough around the edges. Tony and his companions might have millions to their names, but they had to have their business meetings in a smoky strip club back room. Tony might wake up to a lavish breakfast in a pristine mansion, but he’s got to commit a few crimes to sustain the lifestyle. The show lays bare the complexities of the mob life.
Though I learned more about the best places to dump bodies in New Jersey than the spots to get a fancy pasta dinner, the tour gave me a new appreciation for the series.
I’m now incapable of watching The Sopranos without spouting as much trivia as possible. And to celebrate my new fan status, I spent the entire weekend in mob wife attire baking Camela’s ziti recipe from The Sopranos Family Cookbook for my goombas. It was molto bene.