Lorraine Bracco’s laughter is a versatile instrument. There are the low, rolling chuckles that roll out when she’s lightly amused and the high, staccato cackle that spills out when she’s really laughing. And while we discuss her latest project, My Big Italian Adventure—an HGTV show in which she buys and renovates a crumbling house in Sicily—the beloved actress is generous with both.
Last year Sambuca di Sicilia, a village roughly an hour’s drive south of Palermo, started selling off historic properties for one euro in an attempt to reinvigorate the area. Among the rules for the new owners: the projects must be completed within 3 years. Bracco, an admitted HGTV nut, got a CNN push alert about the effort and sent the network a pitch. Initially she’d thought about producing the show—but when the network said they wanted to see her fly across the Atlantic, Bracco couldn’t resist.
“I was hoping they were gonna send me Mr. Holmes Sr,” the actress said of HGTV Canada’s star contractor. “I said, ‘He’s a good person to build a house with! That’s the kind of guy I want.’” (She’s also a big fan of Love It or List It designer Hilary Farr.) Sadly, the network declined to put Mr. Holmes Sr. on a plane to Sicily.
“I was like, ‘That’s not nice!’” Bracco squeaked with a (high) laugh. “I tried. I really did.”
Bracco has lived a hell of a life. She was a fashion model before she was an actress. She landed her star-making role in Goodfellas without an audition. She spent 12 years in a relationship with Harvey Keitel, and would later declare bankruptcy after a subsequent custody battle with the actor. She’s written a self-help book. And then there was The Sopranos—the show that brought Bracco’s unmistakable rasp to millions of living rooms across America.
Throughout that time, the actress has had an ongoing love affair with real estate—which, she told the New York Times, is “like porn for me.”
It’s a fascination that evidently continues to this day; as Bracco puts it now, “I always say I have good real estate karma.”
But this project required more than just a little karma. As soon as Bracco lands in Sicily to tour 200-year-old properties House Hunters-style, it becomes clear just how much work lies ahead. The homes are dusty and dilapidated, all sagging roofs and dusty tiles and, in one case, with a hole where a toilet would ideally be.
The area, though, is spectacular—and although My Big Italian Adventure largely focuses on the renovation process, it does offer glimpses of the centuries-old architecture, olive groves, and delicious (and suggestively shaped) pastries that convinced Bracco to embark on this cockamamie scheme.
Bracco herself is a natural fit for the home improvement network. Even through the phone, she oozes ebullient “aunt” energy that, like her laughter, is utterly contagious. Even when she’s having a (mild) anxiety fit in the mold of so many HGTV homeowners before her, it’s amusing rather than obnoxious.
Describing the property she ultimately chose, however, Bracco does not mince words: It “had to be brought down to the walls,” she said. “There was nothing; it was a shithole.”
“It kind of just hit me in the face,” the actress said. “I’m not a decorator; I’m not an architect; I’m not a designer. What the fuck am I doing?... I panicked for a while.”
Growing up, Bracco’s family was never very into DIY—although her father, she says, “was the duct tape king,” wrapping the stuff around anything that didn’t work around the house, from a pipe, to a car, to a chandelier. “One Christmas, we bought him 10 different kinds of duct tape,” she said. “All sorts of colors, shapes, and forms.”
Now, Bracco can say she’s made a tile table and knocked down walls with a hammer—an act she clearly relished throughout. When asked if her Sopranos co-star, James Gandolfini, would have been handy enough to help her out, she didn’t hesitate: “Totally,” she said. “He would have been great.”
Sopranos creator David Chase initially wanted Bracco to play Tony Soprano’s put-upon wife, Carmela—but after playing a complicit mob wife in Goodfellas, she wanted to do something different. She insisted on playing Tony’s therapist instead.
When she first met Gandolfini, Bracco recalls she told him about the time she first saw him perform in a 1992 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange, in which he played the Kowalskis’ landlord Steve.
“I remember looking in the playbill to see who that actor was,” Bracco said. “I remember looking at it and pointing at his name, ‘James Gandolfini.’ I said, ‘Oh! A nice Italian boy.’” When she told Gandolfini about it, his reaction was immediate: “He just looked at me and gave me a big bear hug.”
The Sopranos cast has remained relatively close since the show wrapped in 2007, even—or perhaps especially—in the wake of Gandolfini’s sudden and tragic death in 2013. COVID-19 has made connecting a little more complicated, but they still manage to connect. In fact, Bracco recently appeared on Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa’s podcast Talking Sopranos—and also, there’s always FaceTime.
My Big Italian Adventure shot before the outbreak hit, so Bracco and her family were able to visit Sambuca di Sicilia in November. The house did get finished, she said, but she has not yet been able to stay there. She’s riding the pandemic out in the Hamptons and waiting for the day when she can return. And in the meantime, she, like the rest of us, has been catching up on a long list of movies and TV shows—The Morning Show, the Israeli drama Fauda, and a laundry list of old classics.
At this point, Bracco is just ready to get back out to Sicily with her family—the real motivation behind her Big Italian Adventure in the first place.
“Being able to have a home where everybody can be and enjoy is a big part of my life,” Bracco said. “My son-in-law says that he’s never carried more shit until when he met me.” Some of her typical requests: putting wood in the bin for the fireplace, helping to clearing the vegetable garden, and helping to pot the 50 plants she just bought at the store.
“My daughter would be like, ‘Mom, can the guy have a cup of coffee before we start having the list of things that you need to do in the house?’” the actress quipped. “...But when my little granddaughter goes out to pick all of the tomatoes and the vegetables in the vegetable garden and she comes back with a basket full of bounty, I’m like, ‘This is what it’s all about.’”