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'Sopranos' Actor Takes Band From Grocery Store to Big Stage

By DNAinfo Staff on October 8, 2013 7:42am

 Actor Dominic Chianese and his band play at the Upper East Side grocery store Conte's Market every Friday.
Dominic Chianese at Conte's
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By Max Willens

Special to DNAinfo New York

UPPER EAST SIDE — They don’t tour and they don’t record together. They have no name and no fixed lineup. But every Friday morning, about a half-dozen guys, most in their 60s and 70s, meet at Conte’s Market on 89th Street and York Avenue to play music together.

Instead of crowding near illuminated beverage display cases, on Oct. 10 the band will play under the lights at the 92nd Street Y.

The group — founded by actor Dominic Chianese, best known for his roles on “The Sopranos” and "Boardwalk Empire" — has played just one other official performance, a 2011 Valentine's Day-themed gig at the 92nd Street Y in TriBeCa. But Chianese said he doesn't see the upcoming show as just another gig.

Dominic Chianese and Friends at Conte's
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YouTube/Carlos Onesixscale

“I think it’s life-affirming,” he said.

Chianese founded the group by accident a few years ago when he brought his guitar to Conte’s to sing Italian songs for the shop’s owner, Nick Conte.

As the band has grown, the ensemble has evolved into a Yorkville institution.

Some players, like guitarist Peter Van Wagner, know Chianese professionally (they met while working on “Boardwalk Empire”). Others, like accordion player Tommy Socci, are literal walk-ons.

Socci was heading up York Avenue a few years ago to play pickup basketball at Asphalt Green when he heard the group playing.

“I thought, ‘This is pretty neat,’” Socci recalled.

He started stopping by Conte's regularly, and during his visits Chianese frequently asked if anybody knew an accordion player. Socci didn't, but he thought it couldn't be that hard to learn.

He hadn’t touched an instrument since high school, and learning to play one on his own hadn't seemed very appealing.

But the scene at Conte’s was different, so he picked up an accordion and joined the band.

“It was a way to learn music as part of a greater thing, instead of just telling yourself that you’re going to practice for half an hour every day in your apartment,” Socci said.  

That feeling of creating community and belonging is "what this is all about,” Chianese explained.

The weekly jam sessions have earned a small but loyal audience.

"I think it's one of New York's best-kept secrets," Nancy Jennings, who lives in TriBeCa but regularly heads to Conte's to hear the band play, said on a recent visit.

No single member chooses the tunes played, which range from folk songs like “Jesse James” and early Beatles songs to 1950s hits like “A Teenager in Love.”

“We all sort of chip in,” Chianese said, noting that no one formally arranges the numbers. “We just do 'em."

The group recently cemented its set list for this week's show, but is ready to play to the room and adjust as it goes.

“Steve’s got a saying,” Chianese said, referring to Steve Price, the group’s mandolin player. “If you play the wrong note twice, then it becomes an arrangement.” 

"Dominic Chianese and Friends: Songs and Stories" is taking place at the 92nd Street Y's Weill Art Gallery at 2 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 10. For more information and to purchase tickets, check their website.