TV | September 24, 2020 10:42 am

Vincent Pastore and the Many Food Afterlives of the “Sopranos” Crew

Big Pussy dishes on his new sauce and the show's enduring legacy in the culinary world

Vincent Pastore and his Italian sauce
Vincent Pastore knows acting; Vincent Pastore also knows sauce.
Bobby Bank/Getty Images

Vincent Pastore is a busy man. The ex-Sopranos star, famous for playing cuddly mobster Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero, is wrapping up a series of Hollywood movies, teaching theatre and has a podcast focused on the HBO drama that made him famous — not to mention a worldwide tour rescheduled in 2021 with fellow actors from the show. “Suddenly, my acting career blew up again,” he tells InsideHook, “but right now? I’m also in the sauce business.”

After a joint venture with The Andrew Frank Group and A&S Fine Foods in Merrick, Long Island, Vinny marked the show’s 20th anniversary by launching his own classic Neapolitan marinara, Vinny Pastore’s Italian Sauce. “All the tomatoes are imported from Italy,” he says. But when the pandemic hit, they couldn’t keep up with demand. A few very devoted Sopranos fans hoarded all the stock as the country entered into isolation. “You couldn’t find it anywhere for a while. The way people were walking out with toilet paper, they were doing it with my sauce,” he laughs, “my face all stacked up, it’s a lot of fun.”

The Sopranos may be the greatest mafia show of all time, but it’s also a slice of Italian-American life, which means food — and eating ­it — are as important props, set pieces and plot devices as Paulie Walnuts’ .32 caliber revolver. The show has even inspired legions of fans from around the world, who have no idea what “gabagool” is, to exclaim it loudly at each other in Tony’s New Joisey timbre. Some of the most memorable moments happen in scenes with food: Sunday Dinner, in one cap-free restaurant with Tony and Artie, or outside Satriale’s Pork Store. So it makes sense that much of the Italian-American supporting cast have found their post-Sopranos calling in gastronomy. Vinny isn’t alone on the sauce front: Steven Schirripa (Bobby Baccalieri), Louis Lombardi (Agent Lipari), and Joe Gannascoli (Vito Spatafore) have all had a tomato sauce. Schirripa’s Uncle Steve’s came in three flavors, while Lombardi imported Italian olive oils and pastas into the States.  

“Why do a lotta guys got a jar of sauce? It’s good business, that’s why,” Vinny adds, “Paul Newman was the first to do it.” While other cast members have ended up focusing on food; for Vinny, the sauce is a means to get closer to his fans. It also reminds him of his childhood in New Rochelle. “Growing up in the Italian neighborhood, I remember my father returning home from work, tired and hungry; my mother would make gravy — which is what we called sauce in those days. There’s something more upmarket about sauce, though. If you’re eating mine, that’s an upmarket meal.” Like Schirripa, Vinny decided to go with sauce over gravy. 

If you’ve been following Schirripa after The Sopranos, you might think he liked food more than anyone else on earth. Aside from his line of marinara, he wrote a trilogy of lifestyle books, including The Goomba Diet: Living Large and Loving It, which includes a tear-inducing “Ode to a Calzone” (eat your heart out, Keats) and some genuinely worthy recipes to try during isolation. Would-be paesans can also pick up his A Goomba’s Guide to Life, where he finally dissects the gabagool for those of us hailing from less enlightened parts. The books are heart-warming (there’s a hilarious photo of Steven’s mom and P Diddy) and sure to have you strutting to the nearest deli for a meatball sub.

Lorraine Bracco is likely to take a hard pass on the Goomba Diet, having published a self-help book titled To the Fullest in 2015, which focuses on improving readers’ diet and health. In one interview, she mentions how James Gandolfini’s tragic death to a heart attack “shook me to my core.” Since then, Bracco has focused primarily on dietary awareness and exercise outside of acting and is both sugar- and gluten-free. She has an upcoming role in the coincidentally-titled Birthday Cake, about a young Italian man who witnesses a murder while taking a cake to his uncle’s house. Vinny will be starring in it, too. 

But the most bizarre Sopranos food story, the one where art most imitates life and on which a whole HBO series could be inspired, is that of Federico Castelluccio, who played pony-tailed Neapolitan Furio Giunta. When his role on the show came to an end, Castelluccio became pally with Andrew “Andy Mush” Russo of the Colombo crime family. Telling a local newspaper how he’d always dreamed of owning a restaurant, he invested $50,000 into Joe Pesci’s — yes, that Joe Pesci — cousin Gino Pesci’s New Brunswick place Attilio. The New York Post reported how Castelluccio turned to Russo to collect money from Pesci once the restaurant went bust. Of course, the actor denies the whole thing, but it makes for a great real-life intersection between the mob and marinara.

“Look, I like to eat; they like to eat … we all like to eat,” admits Vinny, “truth be told, the sauce is keeping me going through the pandemic.” He misses the intimacy and romance of restaurants, he says, but adds, “I’m cooking more at home now, and enjoying it.” Perhaps the reason we’re so fascinated by the food afterlives of the Sopranos cast is that we’ve always wanted to sit at their table or cook with them. Vinny is happy to oblige his fans: “We’re doing these special nights at New York restaurants where they cook a menu with my sauce,” he says excitedly, “then my band will come and play music, and we’ll speak with the dinner guests or sign a jar.” 

For new and longtime fans, cooking with the Sopranos stars’ products is an excellent way to geek-out over dinner, perhaps while the show plays in the background and we spend more time at home streaming in this new normal of quasi-isolation. But it also brings us a little closer to the characters; closer to a cast we love, and quote, twenty-years on; and closer the most hunger-inducing TV depiction of an Italian-American family (as dysfunctional as Sopranos and friends are) in all their ziti and marinara-soaked splendor.