In tribute to the legendary James Gandolfini, I'm reprising a travel post I wrote about the pilgrimage I made a few years ago to Holsten's in New Jersey, where Tony Soprano met his end.
I sat in the very booth and ate the (great) onion rings with the same gusto. Here's what it was really like behind the scenes that day.
Everyone on The Sopranos has long since moved on to other projects.
But fans still swarm the place where Tony Soprano bought the onion rings and then the farm. Including me, I'm embarrassed to say.
I confess that even after all this time, I vividly remember the finale four years ago. Ranked right up there with the ending to Six Feet Under, which was, without a doubt, the best ending I've ever seen.
Like everyone else I was stunned. To the point of not being able to sleep that night. It was so abrupt, I combed the net for plausible explanations about the ending; at first foolishly buying into the theory Tony was still alive and a movie might be on the horizon. All the while realizing he was dead.The clues were everywhere.
Of equal importance was the restaurant. They sure got into those onion rings before the screen went black. My mouth was watering until it went slack.
And the place looked spectacular from the outside, all lit up at night. A fantasy land of comfort food. When I found out it was a real restaurant, it went on my to-do list for someday.
The locale is Holsten's. An old-fashioned ice cream parlor and candy store dating back to the days when Tony's parents would have been kids.
It's in Bloomfield, near Nutta-lee (as Furio, one of Carmela's love interests, used to call it), near Newark, NJ.
So I made a pilgrimage to my NJ roots for lunch. I'm from New York, but we settled near that part of Jersey when I was growing up (exit 151 on the Garden State Parkway) before moving south to Bruce Springsteen territory (exit 100.) The exit numbers are a Joisey Thang, as any native can attest.
I was familiar with Tony's ride home from NYC -- the open to the show. I confess I once barreled through the same Jersey Turnpike toll plaza singing along to The Sopranos soundtrack. Just another geeky fan.
I was concerned Holsten's would be mobbed (no pun intended) for Saturday lunch and that the food would be mediocre. I was pleasantly surprised.
The larger-than-life place in the show is so small in actual daylight, we drove right past it at first.
I parked where Meadow attempted to parallel park across the street, next to a Rita's Water Ice.
The place isn't as big on the inside as it looks, either. But I'm told it fit the bill of what David Chase wanted. He apparently liked the wholesome, All-American feel.
The lunch supervisor fed us all kinds of tasty tidbits as we sat in the actual Soprano booth, which we wouldn't have had a shot at if we hadn't been the only ones there.
He put on the CD with Don't Stop Believin' and the Sopranos' theme song, usually trotted out when the tour groups show up. We all laughed at the sound effect, grateful the throng wouldn't be showing up until much later.
He confessed when he hears the Journey song elsewhere, like a chain restaurant, his impulse is to make a quick exit.
Anyway, the outside neon sign was made for the shoot. The production team left it there.
A lot had to be cleared away ... so the famous front door would be within Tony's line of sight.
A bell was put on the door at the time to heighten the drama.
The regular restaurant mural was changed to one featuring a fictitious Bloomfield High School; the supervisor said he went there and it didn't look like that. The booth where the Sopranos sat is the only one with a jukebox. It's for show and doesn't work.
And it's not the one used in the scene. That one was a prop that left with the production crew.
The workers were cleared out, with the exception of the bosses who manned the grill and the owner's mother. She was an extra who was there for the entire shoot, which ran almost 24 hours.
The restaurant folks say they couldn't decipher the ending from what was being filmed.
Meadow Soprano could have easily parked in a parking lot down the street; but that, of course, wouldn't have had the same effect.
The restroom signs were changed.
The famous onion rings for the table were served up in a salad bowl ... while ours were in a regular bowl.
The cast and crew apparently elected to have food brought into town, where they'd set up camp. James Gandolfini apparently had stuff from his favorite sushi joint specially delivered.
I have to say onion rings aren't my favorite. But these were moist, melt in your mouth. And the cheese steak, smothered in ketchup: Watch out, Philadelphia.
And the dusty road sundae -- homemade ice cream with chocolate syrup and malted milk powder, a childhood favorite -- was just the way I remembered. Plus, we just had to inhale some homemade chocolates on the ride home.
So the final score on the food (including points for no menu items like Carmela and Paulie Wet Walnuts sundaes): A five-gun salute!