Growing up in the 60’s in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, Steve Schirripa, best known as The Sopranos’ gentle giant, Bobby “Bacala” Baccalieri, would wake up on Sunday mornings to the smell of meatballs gusting from his mother’s kitchen. He’d watch her prepare for Sunday dinner: stuffing ricotta into pasta shells, carving peppers to fill with provolone cheese, rolling prosciutto into balls, seasoning sausage, roast beef or chicken with herbs and spices. Then she would send him to the local bakery for “buns,” and he would pace the display shelves until he found the right powdered donuts, sticky crullers or buttery cookies for pre-meal snacking.
“Every Sunday was like Thanksgiving,” said Mr. Schirripa, 49, speaking on the phone on the eve of Turkey Day. When he finally sat down at the dinner table, he would always reach for his favorite dish. “I’m a meatball kinda guy,” he said. He pronounces “meatball” with a throaty Italian gusto that makes “ball” sound more like “bawl.”
Starting Dec. 6, Mr. Schirripa will offer even more tours down memory lane when his show Steve Schirripa’s Hungry arrives on demand on the Lifeskool network. (Yep, it’s cable only.) On each of the nine episodes, Mr. Schirripa, who is married and has two daughters, will join a local New York chef and offer a cooking lesson. Steve Digesaro of Ravioli Fair and Drew Nieporent of the Tribeca Grill will guest-star on the show, as will Frank Pellegrino, who will share Raos’ meatballs recipe (which, for the record, is a favorite of Mrs. Schirripa’s). Mr. Schirripa will keep it local, criss-crossing New York neighborhoods for the finest Italian shops, pastries and sauces, while also taking on his Tonight Show With Jay Leno correspondent role, interviewing friends, strangers on the street, celebrities and chefs about Italian-American food and culture. (The show is executive-produced by a Leno head writer, Joe Medeiros).
The show will be a lesson for Mr. Schirripa himself, as well as his audience.
“You know, I don’t cook. I’m not a chef. But I can cook with these guys while they tell me their stories,” said Mr. Schirripa.
He’ll share some of his own, too. Most of Mr. Schirripa’s childhood memories are centered on food, from his mother’s cooking to Emilio Brothers’ sausage and peppers to Ravioli Fair’s prosciutto and ricotta sandwiches. “Food brings back so many memories—the smells, the family, the feelings that go along with it,” he said. “It goes hand in hand with Italians doing everything big. They eat big, they drink big, they live big.
“Italian food somehow seems to be so universal,” Mr. Schirripa said. “I talked to literally hundreds of people about Italian food. People from all walks of life, and they can all relate to it. They all have their favorites.” He spoke with a group of Japanese women through an interpreter and discussed making spaghetti carbonara.
“This is what the show is all about, getting people to tell their stories about food, about how it helps you appreciate life,” Mr. Schirripa explained.
Mr. Schirripa’s favorite restaurant in his neighborhood of Little Italy is Il Cortile; he took Sopranos cast members out to dinner there after their characters on the show had been whacked. Bobby himself was whacked on the last season of The Sopranos, possibly the most food-centric show ever to air; food seduced (Janice used Carmela’s lasagna to woo Bobby after his wife’s death), humiliated (Junior smashed his girlfriend with a pie after she spilled the beans about his, ahem, oral talents) and triggered panic attacks (Tony’s first happened while making a cold cut sandwich). Mr. Schirripa wore a fat suit for his role as Bobby, who had a weakness for baked ziti and lasagna. Tony often called him a “fat fuck” until he lost some weight in the middle of the series.
Besides his Sopranos appearances, Mr. Schirripa also hosts Spike TV’s Casino Cinema (he spends half his time in Las Vegas) and has the regular correspondent spot on The Tonight Show. He also recently signed a development deal with Nickelodeon for an original TV movie based on his book Nicky Deuce: Welcome to the Family, about a boy who discovers his Italian heritage at his grandparents’ house in Bensonhurst.
He co-authored that book with journalist and novelist Charles Fleming. They collaborated on lowbrow best sellers A Goomba’s Guide to Life and The Goomba’s Book of Love as well as The Goomba Diet: Living Large and Loving It. (From The Goomba Diet’s first chapter: “Food is like religion to the goomba. He believes in his mother’s marinara and Sunday sauce the same way he believes in the Virgin Mary—only more so. Insult his mother’s cooking and you’re a dead man. Some people just eat to live. The goomba, he lives to eat.” Okay, we get it!)
“An Italian never says, ‘Hey, how can you eat at a time like this?’” Mr. Schirripa said, just before welcoming 20 guests to his home for some lasagna and turkey. “No, no, if you’re going to break up with someone, you say, ‘I’ll meet you at the restaurant.’ You eat. And then you break up with them. Death, divorces, business deals, everything is done over food. You celebrate, you’re happy, you’re sad … It’s for the love for the food.”