Chazz Palminteri: Out of the Bronx
The stage and screen star made his name with tales of his childhood in the Bronx, but his home and new restaurant are both in Westchester.
The story of Chazz Palminteri’s childhood in the Bronx — torn between the draw of organized crime and his father’s commitment to honest work — is ingrained in American culture. It is the subject of a one-man show, a Broadway musical, and the 1993 film A Bronx Tale, Robert De Niro’s directorial debut.
But during this childhood, Palminteri dreamed of greener pastures north of the borough. He would frequently take trips north to Westchester County and admire the large estates in Bedford, telling himself that he would live up there one day.
“I always had this vision of living in my own park. I grew up in the Bronx in a five-floor walkup, and I didn’t want to have neighbors anymore,” Palminteri tells Examiner Media. “Everybody thought I was crazy because to us, they were like mansions. Then one day, I was able to fulfill my dream and live up here.”
Palminteri moved to Bedford in 2000 with his wife, Gianna, buying a five-acre property. And this summer, he entered the Westchester restaurant scene with the opening of Chazz Palminteri’s Italian Restaurant in White Plains. The restaurant is his second; he opened the original location in Manhattan’s theater district in 2015.
“We were killing it in Manhattan,” he says. “Chazz Palminteri’s in Manhattan was one of the hottest restaurants in the city before Covid. Now it’s starting to come back again. And now we opened up in White Plains, and we are doing very well in White Plains.”
Palminteri long had ambitions of becoming a restauranteur but struggled for years to find the right opportunity. His first chance came around ten years ago when he met a restaurant owner eager to go into business together. Palminteri thought that fortune had struck – until he went to the man’s restaurant and tried the food.
“It wasn’t good Italian food. It was kind of cheap Italian food. And I just couldn’t do it,” Palminteri recalls.
Later another restauranteur approached him, this one with two restaurants.
“His food was amazing. But I didn’t like him,” Palminteri says. “He said, ‘I just want you to know, I am going to be the boss, and you’re going to be the name.’ And I said, ‘You know what, forget it.’”
Then he met Jack Sinanaj, who owns Empire Steakhouse. Palminteri was impressed by his restaurant – the food, the service, the atmosphere – and learned Sinanaj was eager to open up an Italian restaurant. And he wanted more than Palminteri’s name on the side; Sinanaj and his brothers would work collaboratively on creating a menu.
“Finally, I said, you know what? This guy’s food is great. He is really good at doing what he does. And I did it,” Palminteri says. “It’s been a blessing because he is a great partner, and he really knows what he is doing.”
CLOSER TO HOME
Palminteri’s acting career began in the 1970s; after training with Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio in New York, he appeared mainly in a series of TV shows and off-Broadway shows, often in something of a tough-guy role.
Palminteri was splitting time between his acting career and work as a bouncer when he wrote a one-man play based on his childhood in the Bronx. Palminteri played all 18 characters in A Bronx Tale, which debuted in Los Angeles in 1989. The play was then performed off-Broadway, where it enjoyed a sold-out run.
Among those impressed by both the play and Palminteri’s performance was Robert De Niro. De Niro bought the rights to A Bronx Tale and made the film his directorial debut, starring both himself and Palminteri in leading roles. The film made Palminteri a star seemingly overnight.
Palminteri followed his star turn with an Oscar-nominated performance in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway and notable roles in The Usual Suspects and Analyze This. His career since has been both prolific and distinguished; more recent parts include a recurring role as Shorty in the sitcom Modern Family.
Palminteri has 78 acting credits as well as five writing credits, according to IMDb. Some have brought Westchester to the big screen, including 2008’s Yonkers Joe, where he played the title role of a conman with a developmentally disabled son.
Yonkers Joe was written and directed by another Westchester resident, Robert Celestino. The film was Celestino’s first time working with Palminteri, and Celestino was struck by the actor’s dedication. The lead character was a card and dice mechanic, conning casinos with a magician-like mastery of card and dice tricks.
“He learned some of these hard-to-handle hand card moves and dice moves faster than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Celestino recalls. “I have worked with a lot of actors in my life, but I’ve never seen anyone who was so determined. It really meant a lot to him to learn it.”
Palminteri’s two children, his 24-year-old son Dante and his 19-year-old daughter Gabriella Rose, both attended Westchester schools — Gabriella graduating from Fox Lane, and Dante from The Harvey School in Katonah.
Palminteri now stars in Godfather of Harlem, playing Joe Bonanno in the series about New York City gangster Bumpy Johnson. He also recently appeared in the new Law & Order: Organized Crime.
Acting and entrepreneurship are not the only things on Palminteri’s plate. He still performs his one-man show, which he says many people prefer to both the movie and the musical, at various venues and is writing another play for Broadway (he won’t disclose the subject, citing superstition). And he hosts a weekly podcast, the Chazz Palminteri Show, bringing on guests like Billy Joel, Alan Menken, and Billy Baldwin and discussing life lessons. (His podcast and tour dates are posted on his website, www.chazzpalminteri.net.)
Palminteri splits his time between Italy, where he owns a house, California, and Westchester, but he spends most of his time here at his Bedford home. He has given lectures at the Bedford Playhouse and was involved in its renovation as the theater reopened in 2018. “It’s a wonderful little theater,” Palminteri says.
He can often be found at Splash Car Wash Bedford Hills, which he visits three times a week. “I have this OCD with cars,” he says. “I have to have all my cars cleaned.”
In 2020, Jack Sinanaj brought up the idea of opening up a second location in White Plains. Palminteri jumped at the chance to have a restaurant just 25 minutes from his home. “I said, ‘that would be great,” he said. “First of all, it’s a lot closer to me. I could come more often.”
A COVID OPENING
“We were opening the restaurant during Covid. People thought we were nuts,” he recalls. “But those were the times you have to take chances. When everyone is panicking, you stay cool.”
Covid made the opening more challenging, Palminteri says, making it difficult for inspectors to come and delaying the opening for three or four months. But in one sense, the pandemic created an opportunity; Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza closed the doors to its White Plains location in August 2020 after ten years. This opened up a spot on Main Street, where Chazz Palminteri’s Italian Restaurant stands today.
The menu at the White Plains location is essentially the same as the Manhattan menu, with one exception. Chazz’s in White Plains also includes coal-fired pizza cooked in the same oven that churned out pies for Anthony’s for the previous decade. Pies include a classic Margarita pizza – one of Chazz’s favorite foods, and a truffle pie made with mushrooms, fresh mozzarella, mixed herbs, and truffle oil.
“We always use top-shelf, we give a really good pour, and we always do it the right way.” — Chazz Palminteri
Palminteri’s favorite dish on the menu – appropriately called “A Bronx Tail” – is lobster tail with a mix of clams and mussels in a spicy tomato sauce with fettuccine.
“Our fish is fresh. Our pasta is fresh. And the food is just terrific,” he says. “It has to be great. Because my friends are all Italian. And they are going to come there, and they’re going to tell me, ‘Hey Chazz, what are you doing?’”
The restaurants also feature a creative cocktail list, including some half-dozen specialty martinis (an espresso version is his wife’s favorite, he says.) “We always use top-shelf, we give a really good pour, and we always do it the right way,” he says.
The name on the side of the restaurant, Palminteri says, may bring diners in once. But only top-notch food will bring them a second time. “They don’t care who you are,” he says. “If the food isn’t good, they are not coming back.”
Andrew Vitelli is the former editor of The Putnam Examiner and The White Plains Examiner. A Hastings-on-Hudson native, he now lives in White Plains with his wife, Zeynep, two-year-old daughter, Zoe, and their dog Beasley.