Although I came from a family of reticent,
Swedish-Americans from Massachusetts, I had the good fortune
of falling head over heels in love with an Italian-American from
Brooklyn. His family sprouted in Bensonhurst and moved to Staten
Island, and although there is much to be celebrated about his
culture’s generous hospitality and general joie de vivre, let’s
just say that, at times, there are culture clashes.
I was often left wondering if there was a handbook to help a
daughter-in-law like me cross the cultural divide – for love’s
sake; to translate their Bensonhurst-Italian dialect; to make
a mind-blowing meatball like his mom (after all, Italian meatballs
are bigger than Swedish meatballs, and size matters); and to
have a sense of humor (laughing only when it’s polite, of course)
at all things goomba.
Luckily, Bensonhurst native Steven Schirripa, best known for
his role as Bobby Bacala in HBO’s "The Sopranos," has
written the definitive guide to goomba customs and etiquette.
His hilarious primer, "A Goomba’s Guide to Life," written
with former Newsweek reporter Charles Fleming, is at times akin
to reading a stand-up routine that pokes fun at Italian-American
stereotypes. But it also offers candid vignettes from the actor’s
childhood as one of five kids in a Jewish-Italian home in Brooklyn.
Schirripa, a self-proclaimed goomba, told GO Brooklyn in a phone
interview from his Las Vegas home that the word is pronounced
GOOM-bah (not GOOM-buh), and in his book, he explains that it
may have derived from compadre, meaning "friend."
"From ’compadre,’ it got shortened to ’compa,’ which got
twisted into ’gomba,’ which got turned into ’goomba,’" he
instructs in "Goomba 101."
He defines a goomba as an East Coast, third-generation Italian-American
"He’s tough. He’s usually pretty big. He’s got a big appetite,
too – for food, and booze, and broads most of the time."
There’s also a goomba dress code, explains Schirripa. "A
lot of times people come to the book-signings, and I’m going,
’This is what I’m talking about.’ They got the whole thing happening:
the chains, the jogging suit, the rings. It’s almost like they
dressed up for a costume party."
"I felt like what we did with the book is hit the stereotype
on the head. It’s a comedy book. Nobody fits the description
of a goomba to a T. C’mon it’s impossible. When we describe the
guy who cheats on his wife and wears a guinea T-shirt, and wears
the jewelry and a jogging suit, we’re laughing about it and making
fun of the stereotype of what people think. Everyone who read
the book thought it was funny."
But Schirripa is quick to point out that a goomba is not the
same thing as a gangster. He says that, used the right way, goomba
is a term of affection. Don’t use it the wrong way, unless you
have excellent life insurance, he urges.
In March, he will begin another season of "The Sopranos."
(He said he couldn’t give hints of what’s to come, because even
the cast is still in the dark.) He lives in Little Italy and
Las Vegas, but says he still keeps in touch with some friends
from the old neighborhood. He’s clearly nostalgic for Bensonhurst
– although the actor jokes that his family has already walked
the "guinea gangplank," the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge,
and migrated to Staten Island and New Jersey.
In "Stalking the Wild Goomba," Schirripa writes, "Stalking
the goomba in his natural habitat isn’t all that difficult. You
go to Brooklyn. You go to Bensonhurst. You walk up Bath Avenue.
While always keeping to the general structure of a goomba textbook,
Schirripa often shares memories of his old stomping grounds.
"I didn’t want to write an autobiography," he said,
"because I don’t think my life is that interesting, but
I do think there were things along the way that were very unusual
and some funny, some bittersweet and some kind of sad."
The stories about his family are bravely honest.
"My father was a bookmaker for the mob," Schirripa
writes. "He had an office in Coney Island, where he did
his business – taking bets on the horses or the ball games, collecting
bets, moving the line – and there were always neighborhood guys
in and out of our apartment in Brooklyn."
And he doesn’t shy away from recounting the fallout of his father’s
occupation: when his father was in hiding, his mother was arrested
in his place, leaving her to spend Easter in jail, and leaving
him and his siblings with relatives, feeling alone, scared and
But there are many more light moments, and Schirripa’s one-liners
make for great jokes among friends. ("Words never spoken
by a true goomba: ’Am I wearing too much jewelry?’ Or, ’I can’t
believe I’m a ’Jeopardy’ champion.’")
Schirripa hilariously describes losing his virginity on a golf
course. (To verify his conquest his buddies counted the number
of bug bites on his rear end.)
He is "pals" with Joe Gannascoli, another "Sopranos"
actor (he plays Vito Spatafore) who owns Soup as Art in Bay Ridge.
While patrons may be a fan of Gannascoli’s soups, Schirripa lauds
him for his chutzpah: "The guys got b— like cantaloupes."
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and now Schirripa’s nostalgia
"The last four years I’m in the city I enjoy the people
[in Brooklyn] much more," says Schirripa. "They’re
much more real. I kind of like the idea – seriously – of Sunday
going over their house. As crazy as they are, yelling and screaming
and sticking their nose in your business, it’s a good sense of
people giving a s— about you as opposed to out here in Las
Vegas or in L.A., you don’t get much of that. It’s much more
transient. There’s not much of a family thing. It’s not the same
"I’ve lived in this [Las Vegas] house 11 years, and I don’t
know anyone who lives near me," he says. "I wave to
the guy next door, but I don’t even know what he does for a living.
I wave to the people across the street, but I’ve never spoken
to them. And I’m not Joe Friendly, I’m not, but everyone’s doing
their own thing.
"In New York and Staten Island, I know the guy next door
and his kids play with my kids. As you get older, you realize
these are good, hardworking people, a little wacky but loyal."
Love and marriage
While there might be a bit of braggadocio in the goomba, Schirripa
says the guy is also quite sentimental (especially about his
mother). In fact, he is already writing a sequel, "A Goomba’s
Guide to Love," so he’s an expert about a typical goomba
"You have to take your girl out to dinner," he said.
"You just have to. You have to send her roses. It’s very
cookie cutter. Not much creativity going on there. They’ll go
to Areo in Bay Ridge.
"I remember, these were big things in Brooklyn. Everyone
had to take their girl out. And to show you they don’t really
get it, they would sometimes get four and five couples to go
out. So how romantic is it, a party of 10 for Valentine’s Day?
The girls are on one side and the guys are talking on the other
side, so there’s your typical Valentine’s Day!"
Schirripa has been married 14 years to wife Laura (and gives
her credit for encouraging him to go out for "The Sopranos"
role). He forgoes the goomba’s penchant for acquiring a "goomar,"
"As for me, I been married a long time," he writes.
"In this area, I may not be your typical goomba, but I don’t
fool around. Don’t want to. Don’t need to. I got all the love
I can handle right at home But I think it makes me a better goomba.
An enlightened goomba."
But Schirripa has more to say on the art of love.
"In the next book, we’ll have dating dos and don’ts. Do
open the door for her. Don’t open the trunk for her," he
said, laughing. "Don’t give her a chocolate horse’s head
for Valentine’s Day."
So now I’ll put my dog-eared copy of "A Goomba’s Guide to
Life" on the shelf, await my invitation to join my husband,
and all of his high school friends, and their wives, for Valentine’s
Day in Bay Ridge, and look forward to Schirripa’s next tome of
instructions on how to sustain – and laugh about – my Italian-Swedish
"A Goomba’s Guide to Life" by Steven R. Schirripa
and Charles Fleming (Clarkson Potter Publishers, $22.95) is available
at local bookstores.