James Gandolfini, who made fame portraying a mobster in “The Sopranos,” was a “genuinely nice guy’’ whose death at 51 was sad and shocking, said local residents who met the star when he visited Oneonta.
Gandolfini died Wednesday of cardiac arrest while vacationing in Rome, Italy. He established an Oneonta connection when he and Clive Griffiths, a boyhood friend, opened Vines restaurant at 214 Main St.
On Thursday, local residents shared memories of Gandolfini that were as vivid as the Tony Soprano he portrayed, and reflected a man with a down-to-earth personality who enjoyed company.
“He was fun — he was a character,” said Kim Muller, who was mayor when Vines opened.
During Oneonta visits, Gandolfini spent time at Stella Luna Ristorante on Market Street and at Joe Ruffino’s Pizzeria & Restaurant on Main Street as well as at Vines.
“He definitely will be missed,” Joe Ruffino Jr. said, referring to the global reaction to the actor’s sudden death. “Nobody deserves to die young.”
Gandolfini financed the construction of Vines for Griffiths, who needed the money to launch it, according to the actor’s biography on the IMDb website. Griffiths paid him back, and then some, said the site for movie, television and celebrity information.
Jim and Clive LLC bought 214 Main St. in June 2001 from John Ayres for $129,400, according to records in the city assessor’s office. Assessor Mario Arevalo said the partners sold the property in February 2004 to James Johnson for $325,000.
At the time Vines opened in April 2002, Griffiths of Jefferson said $200,000 had been spent in renovations for the restaurant, which formerly housed J&B Subs. The Vines menu was mainly Mediterranean fare.
Vines was between Joe Ruffino’s Pizzeria and the downtown plaza, now called Muller Plaza, after the former mayor.
Muller said Gandolfini and Griffiths had agreed when they were working as bartenders together in New York City that whoever “made it” would set them up in the restaurant/bar business somewhere in upstate New York. Muller said Gandolfini liked Oneonta and appreciated being away from New York City.