At an Italian club in New Jersey, I'm sitting in on a hand of swaligalan, a game from the old country. It's the middle of the day, but it's dark in here, and the players all have names such as Phillie and Jimmy. This is a location that would be instantly recognisable to cinema-goers. It's Mafia-land. The late Mario Puzo, creator of The Godfather, and the director Francis Ford Coppola used it as a backdrop to scenes from the third part of the trilogy (or "Three", as the wise guys of Channel 4's The Sopranos - from New Jersey themselves - worshipfully refer to it). GoodFellas was shot around here. You half-expect to encounter Al Pacino .
Indeed, when I start asking questions in the Italian club, the men in the card game make me an offer I can't refuse: "Go and talk to Fingers," they tell me. And they're not kidding, either. It seems there really is a character in the neighbourhood called Fingers. How can I resist? After all, I caught the ferry from Manhattan to the Jersey shore in search of someone just like Fingers, and a place just like this; in search of Cosa Nostra country.
It's a sentimental journey - I go along with the hero of GoodFellas, Henry Hill, who said: "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster." (Well, not really, but it has an edge over, say, double-entry book-keeping).
On the other hand, I'm in Mafia-land as a snitch, a rat. I'm here to blow the whistle on organised crime movies and expose them as cosy, feel-good entertainment. They might be the unflinching - and yes, violent - studies of underworld mores that they would have us believe, but that's not why they work, I feel. Italian food is comfort food, and the Italian Mob opera is just as warming.
Even when principal photography doesn't include ravishing shots of ancestral Sicily, there are still on-screen treats such as the names. The few characters not called Philly or Jimmy - or Fingers - have lugubrious handles such as Frankie Carbone or Johnny Roastbeef. Then there are the costumes: gangsters' suits appear to have been run up out of a hard-wearing mix of silk and chrome. The last thing the average tough guy sees before he's whacked is his own face looking back at him in horror from Joe Pesci's lapels. There are the gestures, the body language - that bookmakers' tic-tac of respect.
I'm a sucker for Mafia dialogue, with its terrible oaths of affection, its numbskull repetitions. To get the most out of Donnie Brasco, it helps to see it as a primer in Mob lingo. In one scene, the character played by Johnny Depp takes the apparently empty phrase "Forget about it" and defines five different meanings of it. (For the record, they range from "That's the greatest thing in the world!" to "Get lost!")
Anticipating today's peaktime television schedules, the gangster feature always includes at least one kitchen sequence. In Donnie Brasco, the Al Pacino character ties on an apron to make coq au vin, which he says "melts in the mouth like Holy Communion". The cooking scene in Good- Fellas finds Henry Hill and his crew making the best of things in the slammer: lobsters and fresh bread, three different kinds of meat in the meatballs, and Paulie slicing the garlic with a razor, so that "it liquifies in a pan with just a little oil".
Before I found the club where the friends of Fingers were playing swaligalan, I'd wandered the Italian quarter for a while. I'd passed the My Way Bar & Restaurant, which was sadly shuttered (not, as I imagined, in deference to the passing of the Mob-friendly Frank Sinatra, who had been raised in nearby Hoboken; no, the owner of the bar had tragically predeceased Ol' Blue Eyes).
On the corner of the street was one of those large, gentle, warty men who turn up in gangster movies. They wouldn't hurt a fly - but don't mind trussing people up in the trunks of automobiles. This man was a ringer for Luca Brazzi, the bear-like henchman of Don Corleone who was unforgettably put to bed with the fishes in The Godfather. I told him of my interest in Mob locations - after, you may be sure, many a soul-shrivelling denial that I was linking him in any way with what I was talking about.
He looked me over for a long moment. Then he started to tell me about another movie, not long released; how it had been shot barely a block from where we were standing - at the Italian Club.
The film he mentioned was Analyze This, which recently appeared in Britain. It stars Robert De Niro - as much a fixture of the gangster scene as spaghetti with clams. For Analyze This, De Niro digs out his set of mobster mug-shots yet again - he was the young Corleone in The Godfather Part II and Jimmy Conway in GoodFellas - only this time, for laughs: he plays boss Paul Vitti, who sees a psychiatrist after suffering panic attacks. This is a central conceit of The Sopranos, too, a capo on the couch.
One school of thought is that American producers decided the Mafia was ripe for spoofing; or perhaps the touchy-feely times are the real target of the lampoon. De Niro's Vitti and James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano are familiar figures in the late 1990s, the heads of dysfunctional families. They just happen to be the heads of dysfunctional Families, too. In Analyze This, the incongruity of a consulting-room occupied by a wise guy is milked for all it's worth. When De Niro's doctor encourages his patient to relieve frustration by hitting a pillow - "Hit the pillow!" he insists - De Niro empties a clip and the screen fills with down.
The film has been tepidly received in some quarters, perhaps suffering from a reaction against the recent revival of what might be called Mob chic (tonic suits in high street stores, Rat Pack Confidential in the best-seller lists). Me, I didn't stop laughing until the credits rolled - but then I'd eat Italian for breakfast, lunch and dinner, given the chance.
What De Niro's location scouts liked about the club in Jersey was its tin ceiling, Phillie and Jimmy told me, though it looked nothing like tin to me, with its creamy curlicues and piped frogging, and more like the handiwork of a pastry chef. Once it was a bakery shop, in fact; but for the film, it's a restaurant.
In Analyze This, the restaurant scene takes place almost at the beginning of the action. De Niro's consigliere, or counsellor, is urging him to go to a meeting of the Commission, representing all the crime families in the United States. It's been many years since the members of the Commission sat down, in Mob-speak. The consigliere says: "The '57 meeting was about how to divide up the country. This meeting is about how we're going to survive." As if to prove his point, he's gunned down while De Niro's still toothpicking a troublesome morsel of veal.
Listening to the consigliere's last words, I realised I'd heard them in every other Mob movie I enjoyed. The screenplays all share a rueful, mournful quality (that is to say, over and above all the actual mourning that goes on).
The gangster flick portrays a vanishing - almost vanished - way of life. For all that the tough guys operate outside law- abiding society, they're hysterically conservative. They have mistresses, but propriety must be observed at home. This extends to the finer points of social etiquette. "We never talk business at the table," says Sonny Corleone in The Godfather - which perhaps isn't surprising, bearing in mind what the business is.
Nowhere are the mobsters more conservative than in their attitude to their work. They believe in free-market economics of a Darwinian purity. When Marlon Brando's Vito Corleone, at a gathering of his fellow dons, queries, "None of us are communists, right?", it isn't only fear that makes them laugh along at this unaccustomed joke. The Mob were into controlling the supply of dollar bills before Ronald Reagan was in the White House; they're more anti-drugs than Nancy.
If that dates them, it can't be helped. The gang bosses are history. In the last big Mafia trial in the US, Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, head of one of the five great New York families, was convicted of conspiracy to murder and racketeering. But during the many adjournments of the trial, the court also dispensed justice to, among others, four Hasidic Jews and six Colombian and Dominican immigrants, all accused of laundering vast sums of drugs money through the books of a religious foundation. The mobsters have been yielding their turf to the Latinos, the Chinese, the Russians, the Vietnamese and the Sikhs.
What's done for the wise guys is the decline of the blue-collar unions, whose pension funds they used to milk; the success of police operations such as wiring up informers; and the decrepitude of the capos themselves. The Chin, who's in his seventies, tried to beat the rap on grounds of frailty. The judge heard that he'd been in the habit of wandering Greenwich Village in a bathrobe, talking to himself - a real-life don in need of therapy.
The trial did comprehensive damage to myths about the Syndicate that Hollywood has promulgated. It was abundantly clear, for instance, that the Chin's family was in the heroin racket after all. And a police informer told the court that his decision to turn stool-pigeon, far from transgressing the famous code of omerta, was a natural progression from the double-crossing that went with his day job.
The humbling of organised crime was complete last summer when a mobster named Vincent Marino suffered a fate worse than bespoke concrete tailoring - he was made a laughing-stock. He told a court in Massachusetts that the Feds had installed a bugging device in his backside: this was apparently while doctors were removing a bullet he'd stopped there during a shoot-out.
The US has assimilated Italian racketeers - not least, through the genre of the gangster movie - to such an extent that organised crime begins to resemble a long-lost American institution: looking at the Family today is like looking through a family album. There's a nostalgia for the days when criminals spoke American, drove American, listened to American popular music - and the Mob movie taps into this.
Movies about the Mafia have shadowed the downward trajectory of the real thing: from the Olympian heights of the Corleones, with their private compound, the senators in their pockets and their contacts in the Vatican; to the buttonmen or goombahs, the rank-and-file guys of GoodFellas and Donnie Brasco; to the mobsters on the skids in Analyze This.
This descent into the demotic enters a new phase with The Sopranos. Not only does this drama concern itself very reasonably with characters whom you'd expect to find in gangster films, it also concerns itself with characters who watch gangster films. Tony and his gang are as mesmerised by Mafia movies as working stiffs like me. They model themselves on screen hoods and recycle chunks of Puzo's dialogue.
In its sly way, The Sopranos suggests that the Mob itself is more comfortable contemplating its larger-than-life cinematic image than facing reality.
Perhaps the decline of the Cosa Nostra in America has opened it up to jokes on screen (not to mention other indignities: one late-night current affairs programme went so far as to ask what the link with shrinks told us about the feminisation of the Mob). Certainly celluloid cliches of gangsters are sent up in Analyze This, and in another release, Mickey Blue Eyes, in which tough guy James Caan, probably still best remembered as Sonny Corleone, acts as a kind of dialogue coach to Hugh Grant.
I suppose it might still be possible to exploit the original gangster franchise one last time, to make a straight Mob picture. But even the maestro Coppola has thought twice about it. After Puzo's death, he's shelved plans to cast Leonardo di Caprio in The Godfather Part IV.
For the time being, at least, it seems that the Mafia blockbusters loom too large in the memory. Billy Crystal's character in Analyze This has a dream in which he's attacked and shot while buying oranges from a stall. In the dream, Crystal's patient De Niro appears as his son, butterfingering a revolver and failing to prevent the hit. Crystal recounts the dream to De Niro, who says, "Me, Fredo? I don't think so."
One other thought lingers, as naggingly hard to dismiss as a horse's head on the counterpane. When you read about a new wave of Mafia projects that supposedly introduce comedy into the form, you feel like saying: I realise that this is the comedy of parody, but I've enjoyed Mob movies precisely for their comedy for years (the gore I can take or leave, to be truthful). Think of Pacino as Ruggiero, veteran of 26 hits, chain-smoking at the wheel of his Lincoln: "Put that fucking window up. I'll catch a draught."
Phillie - or is it Jimmy? - breaks off from the card game in the Italian Club and tells me: "There were fruit stands all along here for two or three blocks . . . There's a lot of history in this neighbourhood, but unfortunately everything changes." Jimmy goes on - if it is Jimmy: "A lot of memories - I don't think it will ever be the same again."
The card school are amiable, retired guys - less GoodFellas than good ol' boys. They know a few faces from around the way - there's Winky and Cheech, not forgetting Pretty Mickey - but the most they'll tell me about them is that "they used to be pretty wild, but they've settled down now. Go and talk to Fingers. He'll tell you some stories."
They tell me where I can find Fingers - in a club like this one, on the next block. I leave them to their game and go out past a speckled mirror, a crucifix on a counter and a signed photo of the cast of GoodFellas. On the street, in the Italian neighbourhood, I notice Cuban launderettes and Pakistani takeaways.
The club where Fingers hangs out is less inviting than the first one: the windows are darkened and there's a grille over the door. When I go in, more old boys look up from their cards. A man is drinking red wine from a toothglass. Another's taking a pocketknife to a length of crusty white bread.
I know what I have to do; I know what I have to say - I have my lines. It occurs to me that this is the closest I'll ever get to being in the Mob, or in a Mob movie, at any rate; to being Pesci or De Niro. I say: "I'm looking for Fingers. Is there anybody here called Fingers?"
The man slicing bread lowers his knife. The toothglass trembles. There's another man, sitting at a table near the door. He looks up from a newspaper. He asks me my business. I tell him what I've come for.
He says: "You can't come in the club without the OK of the president." I don't say anything. The man with the paper goes on: "The president's not around right now. I'm afraid you can't come in."
"You can't tell me where to find Fingers?"
The man says, "There's nobody here by that name."
With reluctance (for this isn't the way I imagine De Niro or Pesci handling the situation), I thank him and turn to go - out into the Italian quarter of New Jersey, Cosa Nostra country, with its spicy dishes from the Indian sub-continent and its Caribbean service-washes.
Something about the man makes me pause; it's no more than the way he's folding his newspaper. As my eye travels down the margin of a page to the point where it meets his hand, I notice that two of his fingers are missing.
Stephen Smith works for "Channel 4 News". His book "Cocaine Train", is published by Little, Brown (£17.99)