New York Times
April 6, 2007
Little Italy Says Ciao to ‘The Sopranos'
By CLYDE HABERMAN
Not for nothing, but Tony Soprano and his crew have been pretty good for business in Little Italy. That's what Cha Cha says, anyway, and he's been on Mulberry Street almost since the days when La Guardia was the name of a sitting mayor, not an airport.
“Absolutely,” Cha Cha said when asked if he reaped benefits from “The Sopranos.” He is a sometime actor who has had small parts in the series. But he was really referring to the Mulberry Street cafe and bar that he owns, Cha Cha's Backyard Garden .
It will probably not shock you that Cha Cha is not what his parents decided to call him when he first saw light on Mulberry Street more than 61 years ago. His real name is Ciarcia. John Ciarcia. But too many people had a tough time pronouncing the surname: CHAR-cha. “Cha Cha makes it easy for everybody,” he said.
He was sitting yesterday not in his own place but a couple of doors down, in Sambuca's Café. He had been asked to come over by Sambuca's owner, Ralph Tramontana, who is president of the Little Italy Merchants Association. The subject was the last call for “The Sopranos.” A short final season begins on Sunday night.
Mother of Mercy, it is the end of RICO — on HBO, at any rate. Does it also mean bad news for Little Italy?
Mr. Tramontana was not convinced that there had ever been much of a Sopranos Effect on Mulberry Street . But Cha Cha thought otherwise. No question, he said, a lot of tourists visit the neighborhood with hopes of getting a hit, you'll pardon the expression, of the mob.
THEY want to see gangsters,” he said. “They want to see Sopranos. They want to see Goodfellas. There's a big cult of a gangster-watching population out there. I think if we had a few mob killings, it would be good for business. I know John Gotti was good for tourism in Little Italy.”
This was not your standard Chamber of Commerce spiel. It was certainly not what some Italian-American organizations wish to hear, believing as they do that “The Sopranos” and Mafia-themed films nourish stereotypes of Italians as killers and sociopaths with carpet burns on their knuckles.
“These guys are morons,” Cha Cha said of the anti-“Sopranos” voices.
Come on, Cha Cha, don't sugarcoat it. What do you really think?
“I'll tell you why they're morons,” he said. “One percent of 1 percent of the Italian-American population are gangsters.” Most people get it, he said, and react to mob films as they would to Billy the Kid westerns. “It's part of the folklore,” he said. “People are always fascinated with the criminal.”
“It's them being insecure,” he said of those who give “The Sopranos” a thumbs-down. “All you're doing by stopping Italian gangster movies is putting Italian actors out of work.”
O.K., but will the demise of the series be a big deal on Mulberry Street ?
“Little Italy was here before ‘The Sopranos,' ” Mr. Tramontana said. “It'll be here after ‘The Sopranos.' ”
He had a point. Little Italy has been taken for dead more times than Abe Vigoda. But it's still here.
Sure, it can feel like an Italian-American theme park. Sure, Chinatown enveloped it long ago. Sure, there are just so many “Fuhgeddaboudit” T-shirts and “Parking for Italians Only” joke signs that anyone can take. Sure, the number of honest-to-goodness Italians living in the neighborhood has been small for many years.
And sure, questions arise now and again about whether some organizers of the annual Feast of San Gennaro are the types who show up in the tabloids with middle names wrapped in parentheses. Last month, a subcommittee of the local community board went so far as to vote to kill the 80-year-old event. But Mr. Tramontana says he is confident that the feast will be blessed by the full board in mid-April.
Like neighboring Chinatown , Little Italy absorbed a severe blow after 9/11. The tourists vanished. But they are back, and so is the neighborhood, Mr. Tramontana said, citing plans for new restaurants and projects like an Italian-American heritage museum. “I think Little Italy is growing,” he said.
Cha Cha agreed. “They've been trying to kill Little Italy for 100 years,” he said of those who would write the neighborhood's obituary.
Besides, it's not as if filmmakers are likely to be through with the mob even after “The Sopranos” fades to black. “They'll find another thing,” Cha Cha said.
Presumably, that was “thing” with a small T and not, ahem, This Thing of Ours.