From Baked Ziti to Ketchup Packets, 'The Sopranos' Food Moments We Can't Forget
From Artie Bucco's restaurant to Carmela's Italian delicacies, food was one of the most integral parts of the iconic HBO drama.
To describe The Sopranos as "a food show" would be just as reductive as calling it "a mob show" or "a show about going to therapy." For anyone who devoured the series, created by David Chase, during its initial run on HBO from 1999 to 2007, rented the DVD box sets from the library during the '00s, or perhaps caught up with it on streaming in recent years, the saga of Tony, Carmela, Meadow, and A.J. has always been many things at once. The humor, the tragedy, the bloodshed, the gravy and the gabagool blend together in a way that defies easy categorization. That complexity is what keeps people coming back to the series, often watching it over and over to discover new nuances to the flavor profile.
But the culinary delights of The Sopranos are more than decorative. The locations where food is served have an almost sacred quality: Artie's restaurant Nuovo Vesuvio, the dimly lit bar at the Bada Bing, the outdoor table at Satriale's Pork Store, and the Soprano family dinner table are psychologically fraught battlegrounds where so many of the show's most memorable arguments and fights play out. In 2002, at the height of Sopranos mania, HBO pushed out The Sopranos Family Cookbook: As Compiled by Artie Bucco, a kitschy collection of recipes for beloved Italian-American dishes and glossy photos of the cast. Still, making the food yourself doesn't bring you back quite like watching an episode (or even a stray clip on YouTube) of the show does.
With the Sopranos prequel film The Many Saints of Newark now in theaters and available on HBO Max, with James Gandolfini's son Michael standing in for a teenage Tony, we figured now would be a perfect time to dig back into some of our favorite food moments from the series, ranging from the iconic to the more small-scale. Of course, this is hardly comprehensive, but these are the ones we're still thinking about years later, even more than the meaning behind the famous cut-to-black that closed out the series. Like Journey says, you've got to hold onto that feeling.
Tony's sad dad eating habits
There's a fundamental mundanity at the center of The Sopranos. A recent essay on the show's popularity with younger viewers in the New York Times argued that its "depiction of contemporary America as relentlessly banal and hollow" is key to understanding its enduring appeal. The less flashy, less marinara-covered food items plucked from the fridge, the freezer, and the pantry in the Soprano household, often by a bathrobe-wearing Tony, are essential to that larger portrait of dreary suburban comfort. The image of Tony reading the back of a Honey Comb cereal box, a grouchy father lost in thought or searching for a distraction, is perhaps just as metaphorically potent as some of the show's more cryptic or self-evidently symbolic images.
Consider Tony's bowl of ice cream: Turkey Hill doused in whipped cream and devoured on the couch. In the world of The Sopranos, food delivers pleasure, a break from the grind of the petty interpersonal negotiations of dealing with work, family, and friends. You may not have grown up in a New Jersey McMansion with a mobster as a father, but, at some point in your childhood, you have probably seen an adult, maybe an uncle or a friend's father, unwind in this exact manner, scraping the bottom of the bowl as a form of therapy or using sweets as a meditative escape. When I think about The Sopranos as "relatable," these moments, infused with the texture of reality, are what come to mind first. —Dan Jackson
"So what, no fuckin' ziti now?"
AJ Soprano is a horrendous little shit, cloaking his deep insecurities and existential worry, sensitivity that the men of his family would see as effeminate, and desperation for paternal affirmation in a terrible personality. But in the pilot of The Sopranos, he's just a kid on his 12th birthday looking forward to his grandma Livia's baked ziti—she doesn't drive when they're predicting rain!—whose party gets even worse when Tony has his first panic attack watching his precious ducks and sweating over a hot charcoal grill, a cigar in his mouth. But before all that, AJ expresses his disappointment like any tween knows how, testing the limits of what, exactly, he can get away with running his mouth. Thus, arguably the first truly legendary line from six seasons worth of memorable lines drops from AJ's tiny potty mouth, in front of Carmela's favorite priest (a whole different can of worms) no less.
It's an iconic line delivery from a young Robert Iler, one that is without the stiltedness of a self-conscious kid all too aware that he's on set with a bunch of adults and cameras pointed in his face. He spits it out with the zeal of a mini Tony, imprinted over 11 whole years of learning to emulate his father's perception of masculinity, and his parents snap back with a "Hey!" that's meant to signal he really shouldn't be saying that, but not venomous enough to sting. It's funny when a kid swears; plus, who didn't want the fuckin' ziti?
Food is a precious commodity to this "family" (and their enemies—see: Carmela's Pie Bribe), bartered for leverage, symbolized as sex, offered as a truce or literal sacrament (ahem, the priest), endowed as a stand-in for love, or eaten for closure. Often, these meals are a connection to their Italian heritage, a recipe without an exact known origin but surely passed down through generations and trace back to the motherland. AJ's birthday party isn't the only time that baked ziti holds special importance—later in the series, Bobby Bacala keeps his dead wife's last tray of ziti until Tony's sister Janice begs him to finally eat it—but it's the first sign of how emotionally triggering a cheese-covered pasta dish can be. —Leanne Butkovic
Artie Bucco feeding everyone
Earlier this year, the writer Miles Klee posted a tweet that I still think about whenever The Sopranos comes up: "topic popping off in the Sopranos group right now: is Vesuvio a good or mediocre restaurant." It's hard to talk about food and The Sopranos without mentioning Artie Bucco, the chef who keeps Tony and company fed. Sure, Tony ordered Silvio Dante burn down Artie's first restaurant in the pilot episode of the series to prevent a hit from happening there, but, hey, that was sort of an act of charity on Tony's part, and Artie came back with another fine dining establishment. Nuovo Vesuvio serves as the home base for all kinds of events: awkward dinners between Tony and Carmela, confabs with Tony and his guys, civilized lunches for Carmela and her pals. It's where Adriana worked, and where countless plates of antipasti were consumed.
Every time there's a scene at Vesuvio, I'm hungry. Now, look: I'm an easy mark. I will eat pretty much any plate of pasta anywhere. It's my favorite food, and I'm a sucker for a white tablecloth Italian restaurant, especially one with pictures of mountains on the walls. But Artie Bucco cares about his food. This supercut on YouTube, "Artie Bucco Would Like You To Try Some Food," says it all. Even when his diners would like to stick to the basics, he'll hand them something that will expand their palates.
There's one moment represented here that always struck me, made me assume Artie Bucco was an innovator in cuisine. In the Season 3 episode "The Telltale Moozadell," the one where Jackie Aprile turns out to be a real piece of shit, Carmela and Rosalie Aprile go to Vesuvio. Artie presents them with a plate that Rosalie assumes is just mozzarella and green beans. "It's not mozzarella," he says. "This is called burrata. I had it flown in this morning by FedEx from Italy. It's a lot more subtle and smooth than mozzarella with an almost nut-like flavor."
These days, burrata is ubiquitous. You'd be hard pressed to go to an Italian restaurant in New York and not find burrata on the menu. Hell, even Sweetgreen puts burrata on their salads. But in 2001, Carmela and Rosalie did not know what burrata was. This is how you know Artie is a true pioneer. —Esther Zuckerman
Carmela's movie night popcorn machine
As much as The Sopranos forever transformed the landscape of television, creator David Chase was more interested in putting his characters in conversation with cinema. From Tony's invocation of Gary Cooper in the pilot to Christopher's immortal line about Martin Scorsese's Kundun to Ralphie's obsession with Gladiator, the scripts were often littered with film references that helped put the show in a larger cultural context while also making the characters pop with specificity. Refreshingly, they were never hesitant about firing off spicy takes about the movies they watched! And what food pairs best with a night at the movies? Popcorn, of course. Specifically, popcorn from the machine the family keeps in the entertainment room, the space where Carmela hosts her film club viewing of Citizen Kane in the Season 5 standout "Rat Pack."
"That is what film club is all about, trying new things," says Carmela after Rosalie Aprile complains about the movie being in black and white. (Later, Rosalie issues her own corrective to Leonard Maltin's praise: "Hated it!") Though film club might be all about taking risks and venturing out of your comfort zone, you don't necessarily want to try new things on the snack-front, so it makes sense that the ladies stick with the popcorn. Like Orson Welles's early masterpiece, some foods are classics for good reason. —DJ
Christopher and Paulie eating ketchup packets
In The Ringer's wildly entertaining recent oral history of "Pine Barrens," arguably the most scrutinized episode of the show outside of the series finale, Michael Imperoli makes an accurate observation about the ketchup Christopher and Paulie end up slurping down in the cold while searching for the missing Russian in the dense New Jersey woods: "Suddenly these little packets of condiments become like caviar." In The Sopranos, the enjoyment of food always depends on the circumstances. If you're desperate and hungry, you'll eat anything. Even a packet of ketchup.
As The Sopranos gets more picked over in academia and on podcasts—even the one hosted by Imperioli and Steve Schirripa, aka Bobby Bacala, Talking Sopranos—there's a temptation to look for deeper meaning in every aspect of the show, particularly in an episode like "Pine Barrens," which feels almost allegorical and fairy tale like. But the ketchup packets are a perfect example of how the show always felt constructed from small, authentic details and didn't try to force term-paper-ready symbolism into every nook and cranny of every episode. Again, in the "Pine Barrens" oral history, Schirripa tells a story about talking to David Chase about the significance of mayonnaise in a different scene. He asked him what it meant. “It meant nothing," said Chase. It's the perfect David Chase-ian response: cutting, direct, and enigmatic at the same time. —DJ
Meadow's messy french toast
Even though Meadow Soprano (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) might like to think of herself as one of the few members of her family with a high sense of moral integrity, she can't ignore her privilege. She actually quite likes the mansion that she lives in (despite knowing it definitely doesn't come from "waste management" checks) and you can imagine her maxing out the Discover card her parents pay for at the Paramus mall, no questions asked.
She is at her bratty teenager peak in Season 2, Episode 3, "Toodle-Fucking-Oo," when she throws a party that gets out of hand at her grandmother Livia's home while she is away in the hospital. When Tony finds out (and waves away the police), he and Carmela end up only taking away her credit card for a couple weeks (but vow to still pay for her gas money). The punishment is as mild as it is in part because her father has no idea how to deal with teenage girls, despite canoodling with fellow mobsters all day, and in part because Meadow's clearly learned about the art of manipulation from the best. She walks away from the argument with a devilish grin—as if she runs her household like her dad runs North Jersey.
She also gets as little discipline as she does because of some laissez-faire advice from her aunt Janice, who changes her mind entirely when she actually sees the disaster at Livia's. After overhearing Janice's rage, Meadow eats her feelings away with her friend Hunter, making a bizarre late-night snack—french toast and hot cocoa—as they sing along to TLC's "No Scrubs." While complaining that they're "practically adults," the two make another mess, as Meadow stirs in the milk recklessly and pours more onto the countertop than into the mugs. She may not have cleaned up that mess, but the episode ends with her on her hands and knees scrubbing the wreckage at Livia's. She may not want any scrubs, but something as simple as inedible french toast can lead even the daughter of a mob boss to take a hard look in the mirror. —Sadie Bell
Carmela's pie bribe
The Season 2 episode “Full Leather Jacket” is perhaps a precursor to the 2019 college admissions scandal. Carmela, adamant about keeping Meadow away from Berkeley, asks her neighbor Jeannie Cusamano to ask her Georgetown-alumna sister, Joan, for a recommendation letter. When Jeannie explains to Carmela that Joan has already written a letter for another prospective student, Carmela shows up to Joan’s office, unannounced, with a ricotta and pineapple pie.
Of course, Carmela introduces it as “rigot” pie, but what makes this scene especially memorable is the fact that it’s the first time we get to see Carmela acting just like Tony, switching back and forth between smiles and menacing stares. “I don’t think you understand. I want you to write that letter,” she says. A few days later, Jeannie returns with Carmela’s pie plate, informing her that Joan loved the pie, and has sent Meadow’s letter to Georgetown.
Most of the time, we see Carmela passively reaping the benefits of her husband's lifestyle—saying yes to gold jewelry, fur coats, or a $600,000 plot of land—or standing over huge pots of gravy in the kitchen, but in this scene, she embraces the manipulation tactics from those around her, becoming a mobster herself. Instead of taking out a gun, she weaponizes the very thing that defines her role as a “housewife”: her food. —Jessica Sulima