Over its six-season run, The Sopranos showed us all aspects of Tony Soprano’s world (played by James Gandolfini), and along with all the crime, violence, strip clubs, track suits and family drama, there was the characters’ shared love of food. It was a big aspect to their pride as Italians, as it was key to bringing families together. It wasn’t just consumed, it was celebrated.
It didn’t hurt that one of Tony’s offices was in the back of a pork store, and his best friend, Artie (John Ventimiglia), was the chef and owner of the popular restaurant Vesuvio. At the height of the show’s popularity, they even had not one, but two cookbooks on the market. In The Sopranos, which is available to stream on HBO Now, food was so prominent that it essentially became a central character on its own, giving added personality to the strange and somewhat insular world of the North Jersey mafia.
“No F*ckin’ Ziti?”
It was made clear how important food was to its characters back in the pilot episode. As Tony tells his mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand) that he expects her to be at A.J.’s birthday party with her baked ziti, she calls the house later, crying, to cancel. A.J. responds to the news appropriately frustrated, as he’s now expected to celebrate his birthday with no ziti.
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“What About My Bread?”
With federal indictments starting to weigh on Tony’s crew, he calls Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and tells him to pick up some pastries for the guys. Feeling particularly depressed and unappreciated by Tony of late, he’s further frustrated when he’s forced to wait in line at the bakery. To make matters worse, he then gets passed over for a hapless customer named Gino (Joseph R. Gannascoli, who’d later be recast as Vito), who’d just gone out to plug his parking meter. Feeling insulted, Christopher decides to flex some of his mob muscle, leaving Gino to wonder when he’ll get his Neapolitan loaves.
Livia detested northern cooking, so much so that she doesn’t even try to hide it from Artie (John Ventimiglia), who had just brought her a nice dark ragu when visiting her in the hospital. Though it’s her next revelation, about Tony’s role in the fire that claimed his original restaurant, something he cared for “like my child,” that really sets him off.
“I Don’t Want No Scrubs.”
After Meadow (Jamie Lynn-Sigler) and Hunter (Michele DeCesare) get busted throwing a party in Livia’s temporarily vacant house, the two discuss their adult-like responsibilities over some TLC while trashing the kitchen making some French toast.
Paulie’s Taste For Italian Food.
Tony takes Paulie and Christopher to Italy for a business trip. As they all sit down to dinner, Paulie is dismayed (to say the least) with some of the courses being served. Completely throwing tact and formality out the window, he asks the waiter for simply “macaroni and gravy.” The two sitting across from him compare him unflatteringly to a German, who they claim were “classless pieces of sh*t.”
“You Know What They Cook With In Indian Restaurants? Ghee.”
Waking up one morning with food poisoning, Tony, as always, looks to find someone to blame. When Artie shows up with a menu for Meadow’s graduation, Tony chooses him — until it’s revealed that Tony had eaten at an Indian restaurant prior to his own. Quick to defend himself as a chef, he asserts that he inspects every piece of shellfish himself, before passing the blame to the Indian food. As the poisoning takes hold, Tony’s fever dreams kick in and force him to confront an unpleasant truth he’s been avoiding.
“Add A Little Butter.”
One of Ralphie’s rare moments of fatherly advice, he shows Jackie Jr. (Matt Cerbone) the way to cook pasta so that the gravy (or red sauce… heathen) gets absorbed by the macaroni instead of just coating it. He also gives Jackie Jr. a gun, which he, of course, hides in the breadmaker.
“These Are Mario Batale String Beans With Parmesan.”
There are countless moments with Carmela (Edie Falco) to choose from. As a doting wife and mother, she was defined by her homemaking, particularly in the show’s early seasons, and she’d prepared dozens of meals, if not more, over the years — though none seem more appropriate than her name-dropping the brand of string beans as she sets the table for a big Sunday dinner at the Soprano house.
“The Thing About Turkeys, They Got No Sense Of Direction.”
Thanksgiving, Italian-style, as described by Silvio and Paulie: major antipasto first, then meatball and escarole soup, followed by baked manicotti, then, finally, the turkey — from out the back of a truck, of course. The hardest part, though, is telling Ralph he’s no longer invited.
“Try And Mix It With The Relish.”
A routine collection goes horribly wrong, so Christopher, who skipped breakfast, and Paulie (Tony Sirico), who shot down the idea of stopping at Roy Rogers, find themselves wandering the woods of the Pine Barrens in south New Jersey. After the two of them circle around in desolation for hours, they take shelter in an abandoned van, only to relish the fact (pun intended) that there’s an old fast-food bag with a few stray condiment packets left inside. Desperate for any kind of sustenance, the two make the most of their late-night meal alone in the woods. None of this helps calm Christopher down later when he sees Paulie hoarding all the Tic Tacs.
“My Pizza Never Hurt Nobody!”
When A.J. (Robert Iler) and his friends, including a young Lady Gaga, break into their school before deciding to trash the pool, they leave their pizza behind. The cops trace it back to the pizzeria that made it, where the owner’s son reveals it’s a “custom job,” a double meatball, sausage, pepperoni, peppers, and onions pie. He’s hesitant about revealing the name of his customer, given the implications, though he does cooperate once the cops remind him he’s technically an accessory after the fact.
“Here. Take Your F*cking Dinner!”
After acting out at Tony’s yacht after returning from Morocco, Gloria (Annabella Sciorra) is eager to make it up to him with an apology meal, but she grows increasingly irate as his family commitments, namely a father-in-law with glaucoma, cause him to run three hours late. When it turns out that he has to leave and figure out a way to find Christopher and Paulie (who are lost down in Pine Barrens) she once again shows her temper and throws a London broil at his head.
Junior’s Chemotherapy Diet
“Everything I eat has to go through a straw,” laments Junior (Dominic Chianese) about the diet he’s forced to eat due to his stomach cancer. For a man who loved food, and had a such a keen sense of smell, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him in moments like this.
“The Secret To My Eggs? Sour Cream.”
Tony pays a visit to Ralph (Joe Pantoliano) to give him the news regarding the death of their racehorse, Pie-O-My, which he suspects he knows more about than he’s letting on. Finding him in good spirits after receiving some good news about his son, who’d badly injured himself playing with a friend, only intensifies this suspicion. In the middle of making breakfast, he shares the secret to his scrambled eggs, and why his son loved them. It’s an eerily calm moment that almost humanizes Ralph right before one of the show’s most memorable scenes of violence.
This is the second time the signature dish shows up on the list but under much more somber circumstances. Bobby (Steven Schirripa), still mourning the loss of his wife, Karen, finds himself bombarded with casseroles from the mafia wives — Tony’s sister Janice (Aida Turturro) is even able to list who made what when digging through his freezer. The big moment, however, comes when she, after manipulating both Bobby and his kids for weeks, coerces Bobby into eating the last dish made by his wife before she died as a way to force him to deal with his grief and move on. Or rather, to permanently insert herself in his life. It also leads to a long and terribly awkward meal between the two.
“You, Uh… Gonna Eat That?”
Christopher had been indulging his sweet tooth ever since he’d gone sober, and was even the butt of a few jokes about it along the way. When he goes to Tony’s hotel room to give him some bad news that could mean the violent unraveling of the family, he can’t help but eye the half-eaten Toblerone on his coffee table.
“I Love You, Too, Johnny Cakes.”
Vito goes to Vermont to hide out after being outed as gay. There, he meets Jim (John Costelloe), a local diner cook. It’s over his johnny cakes and in-house sausages that the two fall in love, sharing lingering glances from across the diner’s counter, then later at a bar with the town’s volunteer fire department. Vito, going by the alias Vincent, even uses the pet name “Johnny Cakes” when referring to Jim, showing that the power of food isn’t limited to New Jersey.
“Best In The State, Far As I’m Concerned.”
It’s the last Soprano family meal we see them enjoy together. As Tony, Carmela, and AJ (Meadow is busy trying to parallel park outside) consult their menus, one thing unites them: a basket of onion rings. While theories abound to this day over the meaning of the show’s final scene, it’s good to remember that it was in these calm moments when he was surrounded by his family eating a meal that made Tony happiest. As AJ says when he paraphrases his father: “Focus on the good times.”