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 "man’s man."
"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. You’re surrounded!"
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 bewildered.
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 is palpable.
"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 at all.
"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 Valentine’s Day.
"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," or mistress.
"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 marriage.
"A Goomba’s Guide to Life" by Steven R. Schirripa and Charles Fleming (Clarkson Potter Publishers, $22.95) is available at local bookstores.