For the first five years of my life, I grew up in Bloomfield, New Jersey. There aren’t a lot of things I remember about living there (I was five when we moved, after all), but you know how it is. There are some things that just make an indelible mark on your memory and stick with you.
Holsten’s Confectionery is one of those things for me. Growing up, I remember taking walks to Holsten’s for ice cream, or old-fashioned rope licorice, or even for some homemade chocolates. I remember visits with my father, picking up candied fruit slices to bring back to my mother (her favorite).
And now I remember the Sopranos.
If you’re from New Jersey, every episode of the Sopranos was another game of “Been there!” Christopher comes back from a trip ‘down the shore,’ and he mentions the town where I spent the rest of my childhood. Tony talks about Bloomfield Avenue as a shorthand for how far his family has come. Paulie Walnuts shoots at a fleeing Russian among the Pine Barrens. And throughout the run of the series, they made frequent use of real diners and other businesses to make sure they got the local flavor just right. As a transplant in Washington, it always made me smile…even when the scenes that were taking place were less than idyllic.
Then the finale came, and the final scene played out (or at least cut to black) in a booth at Holsten’s. My jaw dropped. I practically shouted at Elizabeth and everyone watching with us, “That’s Holsten’s! It’s right around the corner from where I grew up!” I described the old candy shop and ice cream parlor from my memory, and Elizabeth made me promise that I would take her there the next time we were in North Jersey.
That next time finally came earlier this year, and we stopped in so that she could see for herself how the real thing matched up to the TV version.
From the street, Holsten’s is the quintessential small-town ice cream parlor. The striped awning, the sign printed in an old script, and the neon advertising “luncheon” and “homemade chocolates” have all been there for years.
Step inside, and the impression is confirmed. A narrow lane runs between a lunch counter and a row of display cases. You can only imagine how cramped it was in the weeks immediately after the finale aired, as curious onlookers tried to squeeze past one another to snap a photo or to buy an order of the onion rings that Tony made famous. But on a lazy Saturday afternoon, the space was just as I remembered it. A few folks at the counter, the milkshake machine whirring (they can handle eight at a time with that dynamo), and a handful of families scattered among the booths in the back.
Elizabeth broke into a big smile as she took the place in…I guess it lived up to the descriptions I had given. We could have taken a seat and ordered something from the grill, but that wouldn’t have been the Holsten’s experience I remembered. In all of my recollections of Holsten’s, I can’t honestly say I’ve ever eaten anything there besides candy and ice cream. So we turned our attention to those display cases on the right.
I had raved about the licorice whips I remembered from when I was a kid, and I was disappointed to see that they were no longer there. In there place was a thicker, more tube-like licorice rope…but we still picked one up to give it a try and enjoyed it for what it was. No candied fruit slices for us this time (sorry, Mom!), but we did choose an assortment of homemade chocolates to take with us. We got dark and milk chocolate mallows (chocolate covered marshmallow), caramallows (same plus caramel) and peanut butter chocolates, taking them home in those same little white boxes they always used.
The chocolates were a big hit – the dark ones had a bittersweet richness that offset the caramel nicely, and the peanut butter in milk chocolate were just begging for a tall glass of milk to wash them down. They didn’t even last long enough for me to remember to take a picture to show you one of Holsten’s chocolates up close.
So maybe we didn’t sit where Tony Soprano sat or order the menu item that has suddenly become the must-try. But our visit to Holsten’s did take me back to those fun afternoons with my family growing up, and it was great to be able to share that with Elizabeth. As for the Sopranos connection? Fuhgedaboudit.