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.
Gandolfini was interviewed by WZOZ staff during visits, said Jennifer Insetta Pajerski, who at the time worked for the radio station. Gandolfini seemed embarrassed by his fame, she said.
“He wanted to come and mingle and just be Jim,” she said. “He was a really great guy.”
Current contact information wasn’t available for Griffiths.
Joe Ruffino Jr. of Ruffino’s Pizzeria said at first he thought Griffiths was joking when he said he would stop by with Gandolfini. But the actor appeared and joined family members for photographs.
Ruffino said he remembered about three occasions Gandolfini visited. Colleagues from “The Sopranos” and other HBO programs also visited Oneonta and Vines.
“It was really cool being able to hang out with people you watch on TV,” Ruffino said.
Gandolfini was boisterous, with a down-to-earth personality, Ruffino said.
“He was as warm as he was big,” Ruffino said. For a while, when a stretch limousine was downtown, people would call Ruffino’s to find out if Galdolfini was visiting.
Ruffino said he suggested callers check with Vines.
Antonio Avanzato, co-owner with his brother, Vincenzo, of Stella Luna, said Griffiths visited their Market Street restaurant several times before opening Vines. One night, Gandolfini was with him, “Tony” Avanzato said, and the wait staff recognized the actor immediately.
Avanzato said he hadn’t watched any of the “The Sopranos” episodes and he cautioned his staff to “let the man have dinner” or face being fired.
“You don’t understand, this guy is an icon,” Avanzato said his staff replied. “I didn’t understand.”
Gandolfini, who noticed people recognizing him, did have an opportunity to enjoy his steak, wine and later, a cigar in the restaurant’s smoking room, Avanzato said.
The Stella Luna owners offered to help the Vines owners make a connection with their beef supplier, Avanzato said. When Gandolfini consulted their drink list and asked about a $6 scotch, Avanzato replied that the local market wouldn’t bear charging $10 to $15 for a standard scotch.
“This is Oneonta,” Avanzato said he told them, and charging “New York City prices” wouldn’t work.
Avanzato said his nephew was so excited about meeting Gandolfini that he stuttered while praising the actor’s genius.
“I’m a thug,” was Gandolfini’s reply, Avanzato said. Gandolfini referred to Avanzato, while giving him a hug, as “real mafioso.”
“No, no, Jim, we’re not.” Avanzato responded.
“The man was a genuine nice guy,” Avanzato said. “He had no airs about him.”
Vines re-opened in April 2004, and at the time James Johnson said he and Bo Matheson bought the restaurant, which was “a little less expensive, a little more mass appeal.”
Vines has since closed and was replaced by Athens Greek Restaurant, which also closed.
Now 214 Main St. is the Red Caboose Restaurant & Bar. The Caboose, which opened a year ago Thursday, is owned and operated by Tim and Hannah Masterjohn, Muller’s son-in-law and daughter.
“I’m glad Tim and Hannah are there now,” Muller said. “It’s a special place.”