Strip performer brings one-man show about Italian upbringing to local library

“You take the good — no matter how bad, everybody has a good. Let’s go eat.”

— Angelo the shoemaker’s motto in “Hear What’s in the Heart”

Wise words — philosophically and gastronomically — from Grandpa Angelo.

Alas, Jerry the Angry Pizza Guy is less sagacious. “Sausage, pepperoni, whaddaya want? You breakin’ my (testicles)? Ged da hell outta here!”

Now try wheedling a loan of Tuttorosso tomatoes outta Jerry to make Sicilian marinara sauce so it doesn’t become a Sicilian sacrilege, tasting like sauce made by a — gasp! — Neopolitan.

“Oh mio Dio!” (“Oh my God!”)

Dispensing life advice teetering on a cane as Granddad or tossing out customers while slamming down globs of pizza dough as prickly Jerry, actor Steve Scionti serves up slices of life, Sicilian-style, in “Hear What’s in the Heart — A Shoemaker’s Tale,” his autobiographical show about growing up Italian.

Coming to the West Las Vegas Library this weekend, the one-man salute to his multigenerational upbringing features Scionti inhabiting multiple roles of family members and other colorful characters — also including Mama Rosetta (insisting on the Tuttorosso tomatoes), Uncle Amadeo (the black-sheep wiseguy), gregarious Uncle Manny (drooling over Gina Lollobrigida), Jesuit teacher Brother Connelly (an enthusiastic sex-ed instructor) and especially, his beloved, immigrant grandfather.

“I got invited to do my show at an HBO workshop, and the president of HBO shakes my hand and says, ‘Hey, you’re a talented young man, but we just signed a show called ‘The Sopranos,’ ” recalls 48-year-old Scionti of his show that, back in the late ’90s, coulda-shoulda-woulda gotten — and still might get — a shot at big-time billing.

“I said, ‘Mine doesn’t deal with the mob.’ And he said, ‘You’ve got to understand, in white, Anglo-Saxon America, they love that stuff and it sells.’ I had smoke coming out of my ears. People get tired of that goombah stuff. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be 13 years ago. Maybe it’s meant to be now.”

Packing Broadway (“Legs Diamond”) and TV (“Law & Order: Criminal Intent”) credentials, Scionti has dropped and resumed the project over the years, while tweaking and retweaking the script, the latest a more PG-ish version than the, shall we say, authentic-sounding original. On this one, his collaborator is his good buddy from their New York days: Anthony Crivello, star of “Phantom — The Las Vegas Spectacular” at The Venetian.

“I relate to it because I’m Sicilian-Italian too,” says Crivello, 55, who also co-starred in the independent film “The Glass Jar” with Scionti.

The Strip performer came aboard at Scionti’s request as co-writer and director to reconfigure a show that garnered positive reviews as a series of vignettes, but minus a narrative thread that would put it on the playing field with similarly themed pieces such as Chazz Palmintieri’s “A Bronx Tale,” Nia Vardalos’ “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and Jake Ehrenreich’s “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn.”

Strong notices, including one from The New York Times, have bolstered its visibility as it continues to tour regional theaters searching for …

“We’re looking for a home,” Crivello says, noting that producers from California and Arizona have been invited to the performances in Las Vegas — perhaps the ideal spot (hint, hint) preceding the dream of a New York run.

“Maybe in Las Vegas at one of the casinos,” Crivello says. “It would be a beautiful addendum to The Mob Experience (at the Tropicana) where it’s Italian, but it’s so much more than that.”

Based on memories of growing up in heavily Sicilian Middletown, Conn., Scionti’s valentine plants its biggest kiss on his maternal grandfather, shoe repair shop owner Angelo Morello. Opening on the day of Angelo’s funeral at a gathering to celebrate his life, Scionti flashbacks through his journey to adulthood, with Grandpa’s guidance and encouragement to his grandson to follow his artistic instincts, despite his own thwarted ambitions of becoming a conductor.

“He had something similar to a scholarship at the conservatory in Palermo, Sicily, but those days, if you had a trade, it was a thing of respect,” Scionti says.

“His father said, ‘I’m a shoemaker, so you’re a shoemaker.’ He had his dream taken away from him. He loved Toscanini, he loved Rossini, every time you walked into his shop, you would hear all these beautiful operas. He paid for my first dance lessons. There aren’t many Sicilian grandfathers that would pay for their grandsons to dance.”

Also a good athlete who played baseball in school, Scionti recalls being asked to be in a school play that conflicted with his sports schedule, choosing the play, then getting teased by his fellow jocks.

“I stopped in to see my grandfather, he was working on my tap shoes, and I said, ‘I’m done with this.’ He said, ‘What are you talking about?’ It was an emotional scene. He looked at me and said:

“ ’You don’t want to regret anything. Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel for people to look up — to be inspired.’ ”

Portrayed as well is an episode in which his numbers-running uncle inadvertently inspires Scionti to do likewise in high school. “His uncle pulls him aside and says, ‘What do you want to be, a happy dummy all your life?’ ” Crivello says. “ ’I’m going to show you what it’s like.’ And Steve witnesses a brutal act that changed his course of direction.”

Yet “Hear What’s in the Heart” is mostly wrapped in warmth and laughter.

It’s in flamboyant Uncle Manny rhapsodizing over a cup of espresso, proclaiming: “It’s like sipping nirvana off the nipples of Venus!”

It’s in Jerry grumpily declaring: “Life’s a pizza. Ya gonna eat it or ged da hell outta here!”

It’s in a Jesuit instructor with a speech impediment explaining the workings of male genitalia to teenage boys.

It’s in Grandpa Angelo’s observations: “A man has-a no dream? Has-a no heart. Has-a no heart? Has-a no music. Has-a no music? Has-a no life.”

It’s in his deathbed declaration: “I’ve lived a rich life. I’ve had love, I’ve had respect, I’ve seen my family grow.

“And I wish you the same.”

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.

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