TWO years after “The Sopranos” said its goodbyes, Jersey style is back on television.
The Bravo Housewives franchise, now in its fourth iteration, has finally hit emotional pay dirt with five big-gestured, big-hearted Italian-American women. And the network has found a visual sweet spot to match: these Jersey girls are living as large as their mouths in brash palaces, affording viewers the voyeuristic thrill of ogling butterfly staircases, double-height foyers and chandelier lifts. Here is a “super-size me” sensibility that has an appealing, self-indulgent quality.
Their money may be new, but the women of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” display no arriviste anxieties. Except for Danielle, the requisite “bad” girl and emotional diva, mired in the house she built with her husband, now her ex, 17 years ago, and yearning for a new man and new digs, these housewives are exactly where they want to be.
Connoisseurs of the genre couldn’t be happier. “They are reveling in their houses and more power to them,” said Margaret Russell, editor in chief of Elle Decor. “Is this a flawless example of how we should be living? Hardly. I mean, are they concerned about their carbon footprint? I would doubt it.” But pleasure, she added, is its own reward.
Michael Musto, the nightlife columnist, said he too was loving the weekly view into “the Sopranos-style mansions which are as over-decorated as the women themselves. It’s all about bigness, from the stairways to the granite counters to the nerve it takes to pass all this off as real style.
“Having grown up with everything ornate and covered in plastic,” Mr. Musto continued, referring to his own Italian-American childhood in Brooklyn, “I can totally relate to this everything-and-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic. Once these people get married, they clearly want to live somewhere that looks just like the wedding hall.”
Indeed, when baby-voiced Teresa describes the bone-crunching finishes in her new home, a 12,000-square-foot French chateau simulacrum that’s “all granite, marble and onyx,” and avers her commitment to the brand-spanking new (“I just skeeve looking at other people’s houses,” she says. “I don’t want to live in somebody else’s house — that’s gross”), Dina, the housewife who is a decorator and event planner, snaps back, “Do you want to live in a banquet facility or do you want to live in a home?”
Teresa and Bravo are saving the reveal of her still-unfinished castle for the show’s hoped-for second season. By phone the other day, she said, tantalizingly: “My master bedroom is so huge, you could have a party in it. It’s absolutely gorgeous and I love it. To tell you the truth, hon, I didn’t look in too many magazines. When I see what I want, I know it.”
But two of the five wives, Caroline and Danielle, opened their homes to this reporter last week. First, some backstory: Caroline Manzo, 47, is the show’s matriarch, the eldest of 11 children, and sister to Dina Manzo, 37, the baby. The two are married to brothers Albert (Al) and Tommy Manzo, who run the Brownstone, a catering facility in Paterson they took over from their father, Albert (Tiny) Manzo, who was murdered in the early 1980s, his body found stuffed in the trunk of his Lincoln Continental. (That gruesome detail is not part of the Bravo narrative, but has been picked up by bloggers and reviewers, for whom it provides a frisson of horror and the suggestion of “family”-style business gone awry.) Caroline and Dina’s brother Christopher is married to gentle Jacqueline Laurita, 39, a former cosmetologist from Las Vegas.
All are friends with the bubbly Teresa Giudice, 36, whose husband, Joe, is a contractor, but only Teresa and Jacqueline are friends with the divorced, boundary-challenged, cosmetically enhanced Danielle Staub, 46, who aches to befriend the beautiful Dina and whose ill-fated attempts to do so, and to find a man, provide much of the show’s narrative engine.
It was Dina who decorated Caroline’s house (as well as her own and Jacqueline’s), with furnishings bought in part from Unique Furniture in Green Brook, N.J., a store whose raison d’être, said its owner, Joseph Mitrani, is to furnish Jersey’s new palaces. “You build big, you need big,” Mr. Mitrani is fond of saying. His 13,500-square-foot showroom in a former plastics factory is packed with crystal chandeliers as big as an Apollo landing pod, red velvet Alhambra-esque bedroom sets and fecund-looking rococo mirrors — in sum, what he describes as European-style furniture (a little bit French, a little bit Italian, a little bit Moroccan and always ornate, like some antiques, but without all the yucky dust). His current best seller is an oversize, rolled-arm sofa with a seat and back upholstered in a collage of brocade, tapestry, mohair and damask, and aged leather studded with nail heads and fringe everywhere else.
Teresa has one, and that’s Jacqueline jumping onto another in the first episode, accompanying Teresa on a Unique shopping spree for her dream house. And that’s Teresa counting out hundred-dollar bills while Mr. Mitrani punches his calculator up to six digits.
You can see flashes of the same richly layered style in Caroline’s home, which was largely empty, save for a hockey net in its great room, until Dina took over a few years ago.
One recent morning, Caroline was holding court in her kitchen, along with her husband, Al, and a pair of Bravo publicists. Petite and husky-voiced, she was perched on the counter in her vast, cherry wood kitchen, clad in a paisley top, jeans and well-worn cowboy boots.
“We’re definitely the poor people out here,” she said of her leafy Franklin Lakes neighborhood, an assertion that belied the message of her ornate gilded and faux-painted interiors. “We had no landscaping for seven years. The pool isn’t gunite. I’m not spending that kind of money. Is there a liner, can you swim? So who’s stupid, you or me? I don’t look to impress.” Al added, “People can take us or leave us.”
Caroline then commenced her house tour, which went something like this: “Here is the dining room, which we are never in. Here is my foyer, and here is my statue, which is precious to me. It’s Lladró, and I’m going to get a hard time for this,” because a Lladró statue, she said, is “an Italian grandmother thing.”
Set on a round table in the curve of the grand staircase, two classical-looking figures are locked in a crushing embrace. Caroline explained that she saw them in a store window in the Garden State Plaza mall while walking with her husband, and teased him about it for years. “I told him, that’s how you make me feel when you hug me,” she said. “He hated it, and it became a joke for us.”
Then Al fell ill one December with near stroke-level blood pressure, Caroline continued, wiping away tears. “When he came home Christmas Eve, the statue appeared. His mother said it was all he could think about in the hospital, getting me the piece.”
The tour resumed, in an anteroom off the front hall. “This room makes no sense,” she said, stomping through it and out into a hall. “And this is the guest room, which every time I start to fix up someone moves in.” (Dina and her daughter lived here for three years; Jacqueline, her daughter and husband, Christopher, for six months.)
We moved on to a red-wallpapered bathroom with a fully gilded door, many gold knickknacks and a painting of a monkey in an Old Master setting and a gilded frame. “That monkey looks just like my grandmother,” Caroline said. “It always cracks me up.”
The great room was next, yardage the family crosses to reach the television room or the kitchen, which lie on either side. Downstairs was the “man cave,” as the home improvement shows say, more acreage but this time accessorized with pinball machines, a Skee-Ball setup, an Atlantic City-style card table, a pool table, a black velvet bean bag the size of a Manhattan studio apartment, a suite of leather furniture in front of a giant flat screen TV, and a gym as big as the one on your corner.
“When the kids were growing up, I wanted this to be the house everyone came to,” Caroline said. (They still do: her sons, Albie, 23, and Christopher, 20, and her daughter, Lauren, 21, all live at home.) “That’s how I grew up; the door was always open. It was very Italian, plenty of laughter, plenty of food, plenty of fighting. It was paramount that our kids were raised with the same traditions.”
Speaking of fighting, it was time to see the next housewife, Danielle, who lives five minutes away in Wayne.
“Good luck with that one,” Caroline said darkly. “Have fun!”
Danielle has not endeared herself to the Manzo clan, despite her best efforts. (She is an eager-to-please hostess: This week’s episode included a Botox and lip-plumping party chez Danielle, a viewing challenge for those not blessed with strong stomachs.)
She opened the door, festively clad in a tropical green tunic and form-fitting designer jeans (she has 401 pairs, she said), and attended by a duet of small dogs barking hysterically.
“Fendi, Fendi, shut up,” she yelled at the worst offender. (There were two tiny Chihuahuas in pink T-shirts: palm-size Fendi and Birkin-bag-size Paradise.) “Did she make poopie? That dog is more work.”
Danielle scooped the offending morsel off the white wall-to-wall carpet in her great room, disposed of it and then curled up on a sofa with Fendi shivering in her arms. She spoke wistfully of the parties she and her husband used to host, the clothing changes they required and the butler who would follow her around with “my own bottle of Cristal and my shoes hanging from his pinkie.”
She fell short of demonstrating the moves of her chandelier lift, which winches the 400-pound Baccarat monster in her double-height foyer down to four inches above the floor so she can clean it. Before her divorce, she said, she had a housekeeper whose daily efforts were bolstered by those of a team of three each week. “Now, someone comes once a month,” she said. “I’m cleaning it all.”
It’s a big house, even bigger than Caroline’s, at 10,500 square feet, and frozen in its pale ’90s style. “It was my ideal house in the ’90s,” she said. “There’s a lot I’d like to do now. Some paint would be nice.”
Danielle showed off her bedroom, with its built-in bed at center stage and the television buried in its foot that rises with the push of a button. The shades are closed, she said, because she was surprised recently at 6:30 in the morning by a guy with a camera crashing through her backyard.
She’s holding off on house-hunting until she finishes husband-hunting, she said, and doesn’t imagine living here too much longer.
“What man wants to live where another man made his home?” she said. “I also think it’s important to have that experience of building or renovating together. Every corner of this house is my ex. It’s really great for the kids” — two daughters, aged 11 and 15 — “it’s not so great for a man.”
At a photographer’s request, she curled up on the damask ottoman in the nook formed by one wing of her butterfly staircase. She brandished a new book, “Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project,” making sure it was right-side-up for her portrait.
The reporter complained that she’d had to explain phone sex to her 12-year-old daughter after watching the show’s first episode (in which Danielle endeavors to meet in person a man with whom she has been telephoning for six months).
“Did you tell her it was the only safe sex there is?” Danielle responded.
“I’m an etiquette train wreck,” she admitted. But her on-show gaffes have earned her fans, whom she said she encounters every time she goes out. “My social life is great. I can’t tell you how nice it is to go places and people are happy to see me.”
And who knows? Maybe one of them will want to snuggle up under the chandelier here, or even take out the garbage.