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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Tommy DeVito loves New Jersey, and New Jersey loves him back

A signed photograph of New York Giants quarterback Tommy DeVito on a shelf at Natoli’s Italian deli in Secaucus, N.J., on Dec. 13, 2023. DeVito made the cut for a picture at Natoli’s, but the New Orleans Saints sullied his image on Sunday. (Bryan Anselm/The New York Times)

By Corey Kilgannon and Mark Bonamo

At Natoli’s Italian Deli in Secaucus, New Jersey, in the shadow of MetLife Stadium, one can now order the Tommy DeVito hero — chicken parm a la vodka — just like the breakout New York Giants quarterback likes it.

In the past month, DeVito, raised across the Hackensack River in Cedar Grove, has rocketed from third-string obscurity to star on the often-dismal Giants, keeping their long-shot playoff chances alive -- barely -- and becoming an icon of the greater Meadowlands metro area.

DeVito, 25, grew up loving the Giants, his mother’s chicken sandwiches and watching his father, a plumber, fix boilers. Now he is known as “Tommy Cutlets,” a nickname he scribbled on fans’ white tank tops during an event at Primo Hoagies in nearby Wayne. He posed for selfies pursing his fingers Italian-style in his signature touchdown celebration.

A hometown NFL hero might seem like an anomaly in an era of free agents, multimillion-dollar contracts and teams without local roots. But when DeVito materialized in the Meadowlands, he drove home the truth that a “New York” team has actually played in one state over for nearly half a century. That state is now staking an ownership claim.

Tommy Cutlets has become the toast — or maybe the bruschetta — of the towns that lie in the shadow of MetLife Stadium.

At Lombardi’s Bar and Restaurant in Cedar Grove, where the DeVitos live down the street and have been customers for years, the owner seized on a mafia analogy to describe DeVito’s sudden prowess.

“He’s the don now,” the owner, Al Lombardi, said.

The don still lives with his parents less than 10 miles from the stadium, but he is ubiquitous on the back pages of tabloids and social media.

DeVito started and won three straight games for the Giants, including a thrilling comeback at home against the favored Green Bay Packers last week on “Monday Night Football,” before crashing back to earth in Sunday’s gruesome 24-6 road loss to the New Orleans Saints in which the quarterback was sacked seven times.

Hardcore fans here have followed his career for years, from peewee leagues to a high school state championship for Don Bosco Prep, the football powerhouse in Ramsey, New Jersey, and then Syracuse University and the University of Illinois.

Hometown hopes flagged early this year after DeVito failed to be selected in the NFL draft, which left him living with his family and uncertain about his football future.

But this spring, he headed over to the Meadowlands and walked onto the Giants practice squad as an undrafted rookie. He was riding the bench when injuries to the Giants’ top two quarterbacks opened the starting role last month.

The DeVito family rooting section cheered his plays with the trademark hand gesture whose myriad meanings can include a profane, get-a-load-of-this attitude. His father, Tom DeVito Sr., in proper old-world style, would kiss the cheek of his son’s agent, Sean Stellato.

The cameras love the agent, who calls his client the “Passing Paisan” and dresses in a black pinstriped suit, turtleneck and fedora.

And they love the overflow DeVito contingent smoking cigars in the parking lot during pregame tailgating, amid tables of chicken parmigiana heroes handmade by a cousin and a feast of Italian food laid out in aluminum trays.

Last Tuesday morning, having slept only an hour after his son’s triumph over the Packers, Tom DeVito Sr. was back to the boilers.

“It’s heating season, so it’s business as usual for me,” he said. “I’m the donkey of the family.”

Given his son’s sudden stardom, he said, “It’s gotten to the point I tell my workers, ‘I’m not going inside because as soon as I walk in the house, everyone’s got their Giants jerseys on.’ I can’t get any work done.”

He added, “Every five seconds, my wife sends me another media request. I have 818 text messages to return. It’s just so overwhelming for him and us.”

The hype has not won over everyone. A crowd of regulars at the Belmont Tavern in Belleville last Wednesday stoically sipped Seven and Sevens and debated whether the quarterback had the staying power to merit a spot on the wall of fame.

“A few games don’t make a season. He’s got to earn his stripes,” said Joe Coviello, a patron from Nutley. “Once you start losing, you’re out.”

Anyway, the wall already has two Tommy DeVitos: the gangster character from “Goodfellas” played by Joe Pesci, who also grew up nearby; and the real-life member of the Four Seasons singing group, another local.

At Natoli’s in Secaucus, they’re sold. DeVito’s photo is in the center of a family photo gallery set up in a corner. The lunchtime crowd last Wednesday swarmed the counter for the Tommy DeVito hero.

“How do you beat a chicken parm cutlet with vodka sauce? How do you beat this kid? He’s a hero,” said Rob Gail, who was busy polishing off his own sandwich. “He’s a humble guy who lives at home with his mom and dad. I lived at home until I was 30 years old, and my mom makes great chicken cutlets. I get it.”

It appears that many New Jerseyans do. Of the state’s population of roughly 9.3 million, roughly 500,000 residents identify solely as Italian American, and another 750,000 claim partial Italian ancestry, according to 2022 census figures.

Teresa Fiore, a professor of Italian American studies at Montclair State University, said New Jersey has the third-largest population of Italian Americans in the country. “It’s a profoundly Italian state,” she said. “Tommy DeVito is joining a very large family of famous Italians from New Jersey.”

The avalanche of stereotypes, from memes of wannabe wiseguys in track suits to “Godfather” allusions, amuses Ignacio Urbina, one of the people who coached DeVito at Don Bosco Prep, a school named after a saint born near Turin, Italy.

Getting noticed for being Italian “wasn’t a huge thing at Don Bosco,” Urbina said. “It’s not exactly unfamiliar territory to Italian American families here.”

But DeVito’s image has become intertwined with his ethnicity. “It’s the New Jersey thing. People still talk about ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Jersey Shore,’ and it’s all fed into that, and people seem to eat it up,” Urbina said.

He called DeVito a hardworking, confident player who regularly returns to the school, including a recent football open house where he spoke to families of prospective students.

If DeVito is now a long way from high school ball, you would not know it to see him as he was swarmed by reporters at his locker after practice last Wednesday. He seemed unfazed. It could have been another afternoon practice at Don Bosco.

“I appreciate all the support, and there’s a lot going on right now,” he said. “I’m just trying to be me. I’m going to let my personality show.”

Back at Lombardi’s, Lombardi said he hopes the ride continues for the don of the Giants’ offense. But he was realistic.

“An NFL quarterback and a mobster, there’s no difference,” he said. “Any day, it could be over.”

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