Hey, whatsamadda, moozadell? You think maybe Joisey is a joke?
Had anyone put that question to you before the advent of "The Sopranos," you probably would've wisecracked something about landfill sites and sanitation engineers.
But thanks to the opening montage in the runaway TV hit, those don't seem like insults anymore. Improbably, the not-so-garden spots in the Garden State that Tony Soprano drives past after exiting the Lincoln Tunnel have achieved the aura of iconography.
Eleven million Sopranos fans - including those of us who actually inhabit New Jersey - are on intimate terms now with most of them: The Turnpike, a ribbon of concrete that slices through the Rust Belt as Tony heads west for the suburbs. The Meadowlands, a desolate stretch of marshland practically in the shadow of New York's skyline that swallows dead mobsters without a trace and gave rise, in Sopranos-speak, to "takin' 'em out to da weeds." Not to mention the Pulaski Skyway and Pizzaland, a pie palace as synonymous with Jersey's industrial landscape as bistros are with Beverly Hills.
"Of course, nobody's told Tony there's a better route home," quipped Andy Sydor, the guide on our Sopranos bus tour.
A Sopranos bus tour?
Yes, folks. It was inevitable. After all, TVs favorite suburban family group since Donna Reed claims New Jersey as its standard-bearer. And a Manhattan company - On Location Tours - recently dreamed up the jaunt on Tony's side of the Hudson River. When we heard about it, we jumped at the chance to go. For $30 per person, cannoli included, you get to see parts of Jersey you'd normally pay to avoid.
If the TV show extols existential mobsterism, the tour makes their milieus, er, concrete. Opening-credit features and several of the show's on-location sites are on its list of things to see.
The tour departs every Sunday from New York's Bryant Park, making a second pickup in New Jersey at - where else? - a mall, in Secaucus, where we boarded.
Some of the 50 or so fans of "The Sopranos" on the bus could contact central casting as extras. One woman bore an uncanny resemblance to Carmela. And a guy festooned with tattoos and gold pinky rings crowed: "Something's finally changing New Jersey's image. Because of "The Sopranos', Jersey is where it's happening. It's a Jersey thing."
Dubious, to be sure.
Ironically, the fame the show conferred on Jersey is a double-edged sword. By the series' third season, the county commission in Newark denied HBO permission to use parks there because of its Italian-American community's sensitivity to bias, Sydor told us.
Sydor, one of three guides that lead the company's Sopranos tours, is of Ukrainian extraction. The others are Irish and Puerto Rican. "The company tried to get an Italian but it's like, Omerta rules - and nobody's talkin'."
While interiors for "The Sopranos" are shot at Silver Cup Studios in Queens, most location shoots are in Jersey. But the tour, we discovered, omits many of the show's more vaunted spots and winds up, well, a mostly drive-by thing. We hoped to visit places like North Caldwell, the tony community where Tony lives. But fuggedabouddit.
"That's a wealthy community and they can keep us out," explained Sydor, whose "Bada-Bing" emblazoned T-shirt commemorates both the tour and the strip joint where Sopranos' wiseguys make deals and which we would stop at later.
Also off-limits, or not on the tour's agenda, are the upscale Italian restaurant in Jersey City where Tony got food poisoning, Dr. Melfi's house in Montclair and Livia's retirement home in West Orange. "Yeah, closely guarded secrets," came a voice from the back of the bus, "like HBOmerta."
The tour's first drive-by was the Jersey City Cemetery, where Jackie Aprile (he should rest in peace) was buried. As the bus navigated a derelict part of Route 1-9 South -- a still-operating red-light district straddled by seedy by-the-hour motels -- Sydor riffed about the area's pre-Sopranos history, which come to think of it, didn't sound all that different to us. Sydor recollected the days of Mayor Frank Hague, "when guys would install your phones and tap them at the same time." In fact, "Frank was so popular people would vote for him even after they passed on."
The first real stop: The New Skyway Diner, aptly named for its location beneath the underbelly of the Pulaski Skyway, where Chris, Tony's nephew, got shot last season. The eatery might be the only Jersey diner closed on a Sunday, but a few of us disembarked anyway to take mug shots of each other there.
Our route crossed the Hackensack and Passaic rivers into Newark, where flashbacks to Tony's childhood were set. What is "Down Neck" in the series actually is Newark's Ironbound section, so-called because railroad tracks separate the neighborhood from the rest of the city; it's now a Little Portugal reincarnated.
The bus edged into Harrison, past the cargo bays of a huge abandoned factory building located off of Frank E. Rodgers Boulevard, named for the mayor who got elected 24 times! (Seems Jersey's voters are more creative even than Florida's.) The building -- with Chas. F. Guyon Inc. lettered on its facade -- is where Chris fatefully decided "let's rob one more truck" and nearly got himself rubbed out as a result.
We headed toward Kearny, an old Scottish community where you can still get haggis, Sydor said. Calling Scotland's infamous mystery meat "a big gray meat balloon," Sydor launched into what we could only describe as his Little Scottish-Italy schtik: "What's the difference between a bagpipe and haggis?" he asked. "If you're really really hungry, you might eat the bagpipe."
Cute. But we're not talking haggis here; we're talking pork store -- the famous Satriale's, a created set located in the former Kearny Auto Parts Store on Kearny Avenue at Duke Street.
"Location shooting can be very difficult," Sydor explained. "And Kearny is a quiet town."
So to ensure that souvenir hunters don't steal the show's pig sign prop, TV crews remove it between shoots. (For filming, Sopranos also pays the Irish American Association next door to substitute the Italian flag for the Irish flag that normally flutters out front "so it doesn't disturb the composition of the setting.")
The shop's security gate made peeking inside nearly impossible and the featureless, propless exterior looked nothing like it does when Tony & Co. park at tables there. By the time someone in the group noticed that the pork store stands diagonally opposite the church where Carmela's uncle's funeral was held, we had to reboard the bus.
Other drive-bys included Ramsey Outdoor (closed) at the Paramus Mall where Tony engineered his illegal airline ticket scam. Someone on the bus quipped that Paramus comes from an old Indian word meaning "by the mall." The bus made a wide U-turn in the empty parking lot and headed south to -- ta-da! -- the Bada-Bing Club.
En route, Sydor briefed us on Silvio Dante, played by Steven Van Zandt. He offered this tidbit about that head of hair: "Because of an injury, he's all wig."
Thanks to the series' third season, we also now know that Dante owns the Bada-Bing. In real life it's Satin Dolls on Route 17 in Lodi, prompting Sydor to toss in this conspiratorial crumb: For all its verisimilitude, the series gets one detail wrong, he said. In Jersey, all topless bars are actually "juice bars" because alcohol and bare-breasted women aren't allowed in one place simultaneously. (See? Jersey really is enlightened.)
No pictures permitted inside, Sydor instructed as the bus pulled into the club's lot. Guess what? Normally on the tour, Bada-Bing's interior got crossed off our list that day. A Playboy magazine photo crew was inside.
We made the best of things and gathered outside, behind the club, around the Dumpster -- near where Ralphie bashed in Tracee's head. Our little assembled circle seemed to invest the spot with the totemic solemnity of hallowed ground.
The best stop was the last, though it had only perfunctory relevance to "The Sopranos." The Sorrento pastry shop at the Lodi Mall is "not in the show -- yet," Sydor said. But he loaded up a bakery box with cannoli and sfagliatelle, which we scarfed up like the Sopranos at a sit-down.
We were tempted to dub this the ultimate Mafia tour -- as in, hey, we been robbed! We sure would have preferred to visit sights instead of just doing drive-by shootings with our cameras. But for a few hours, at least, it was an easy and entertaining way to infiltrate Sopranoland.
And, hey, it sure beats getting your feet planted in cement!
Reservations required. Adults: $30; children $15. The tour departs from New York City at 2 p.m., and, depending on traffic, from Secaucus, N.J., at approximately 2:20 p.m. For more information, call On Location Tours at (212) 410-9830.