GTA 3 is one of those games that everyone assumes I’ve played: I love GTA Online, I’m from New York (and still live there), and I’m a loud-and-proud Italian-American. GTA 3 is set in a fictional New York City, where your character is working his way up the Italian mob ladder by doing odd jobs for the dons. At the time, its release was groundbreaking, ushering in an entirely new era of open-world games led by Rockstar. Naturally, everyone thinks the Italian New Yorker who loves GTA would have played it several times over, right?
But in 2001, back when GTA 3 was released, it was banned in my house. I was, to be fair, only 11-years-old, and my parents’ jobs as NYPD officers meant playing the game was akin to worshipping the devil at Sunday service. I never got a chance to play it, and by the time I could sneak a GTA title into the house without getting caught, the series had gotten to San Andreas. However, more than 20 years later, thanks to the Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition, I’m playing GTA 3 for the first time ever.
Bizarre rain animations and questionable visual choices aside, I’m pleasantly surprised at how much depth this little Liberty City has. GTA 3 can certainly sketch a caricature of Italian-Americans, but there are some hilarious details that bring a wry smile to my lips. As I drive around its streets, I’m transported to another version of the world I currently live in, where I easily get lost for hours.
GTA 3 begins exactly how I’d expect any Grand Theft Auto title to start: a down-on-his-luck individual has to re-establish his footing in the criminal underbelly of his native city. You step into the square-shaped sneakers of protagonist Claude, who quickly gets in with the Leone crime family to start his journey to becoming what the Mafia calls a “made man”. Within minutes of the game’s opening, you’re introduced to Luigi Gotorelli, who I instantly recognize is voiced by Joe Pantoliano (The Matrix), a man who sounds like every man in my immediate family. Mama, I’m home.
After Pantoliano’s Luigi, GTA 3 offers a veritable who’s who of Italian-American and native New York actors: Robert Loggia (Scarface), Debi Mazar (Entourage), comedian Michael Rappaport, Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs), and Frank Vincent (The Sopranos). Each actor is leaning into their New York accent with unbridled fervor, offering up a chorus of mangled Italian words reminiscent of my childhood Christmas dinners – no one flat-out says “gabagool” in GTA 3, but the essence remains, lingering overhead like the smell of fresh Sunday sauce simmering on the stove. It may not look anything like New York City, but there is an undeniable Italian-ness to Liberty City, a very specific *makes the universal Italian hand signal* vibe that is unique to the New York metropolitan area.
And although this version of Liberty City doesn’t attempt to recreate iconic areas of New York as much as GTA 4, there are echoes of the city and its surrounding areas that a native New Yorker can easily recognize. Portland is reminiscent of western Long Island and the working class, industrial areas of Brooklyn and Queens, while Shoreside Vale feels like the Bronx and the beginnings of upstate New York, and Staunton Island has echoes of Lower Manhattan.
There may not be the telltale visual markers of New York throughout Liberty City, but there’s no denying where I’m meant to be as I pull into the parking lot of Marco’s Bistro to make Lips Forelli pay for not paying up. A faded green sign clearly painted directly onto the brick reads “The World Famous Marco’s Bistro – the way yo mama used ta make it.” It looks just like the faded paint announcing Italian pastry shops that adorn the brick buildings of Mulberry Street.
Suoni di Sicilia
Nothing says New York more than its people, and GTA 3’s Liberty City has them in spades. As I’m in the middle of a particularly frustrating mission trying to ram an armored car until its drivers abandon it, I step out of my stolen box truck and duck down an alley to try and drop my wanted level. A random passerby says something about “real good red sauce” and suddenly I’m transported to the A&S Pork Store in Massapequa, waiting in line with my dad for a half-pound of “mutzadell” and a sausage ring.
As the game progresses, I hear snippets of Italian-Americanisms and some choice curses thrown out in Italian – specifically Sicilian dialect. This is a lovely little attention to detail that I have to tip my fedora to Rockstar for – during both major Italian diasporas, the majority of Italian immigrants were from southern Italy. The diasporas took place after the unification of Italy and during the rise of fascism in the country, where poverty and a lack of land hit southern Italians the hardest. According to a 2009 report from the Migrantes Foundation (opens in new tab), 54.8% of Italian immigrants were from the south, and Sicily (the southern island that looks like it’s being kicked by the boot that is Italy) was the region with the most immigrants. My family is no exception to this: according to his ancestry report, my dad is 81% Southern Italian.
GTA 3’s Sicilian sayings (which include “non sono mica cazzi tuoi!” or “it’s none of your fucking business” and “minchia, torna qui!” which is roughly “fuck, get back here!”) inject it with a realism that feels almost ahead of its time. Even from my 20-year-late vantage point, it’s clear that Rockstar wanted to imbue Liberty City and its constituents with a heavy dose of red-white-and-green. While most of GTA 3’s Italian-ness flirts with caricature, it’s Rockstar’s dedication to making sure the Italian archetypes are speaking the right version of Italian that pushes it beyond obtuseness. This helps make GTA 3’s world feel more tangible and real, which is especially difficult from a modern perspective when you consider how small Liberty City is in comparison to today’s open-world games.
The Liberty City of GTA 3 isn’t very large, especially when you compare it to all of Rockstar’s other cities. It doesn’t take long to traverse the entire area, and driving around with the updated universal controls makes it feel a lot like the GTA games I’m more familiar with. I do have to keep reminding myself that this is a 20-year-old game, as it is rather barren when it comes to population and interactive elements outside of missions. At the moment, there’s a couple of AmmuNation stores, Luigi’s sex club, a few auto shops, and some safehouses.
At first, I’m a bit underwhelmed, but as soon as I realize that GTA 3’s sandbox is without some of the more stringent guidelines for completing missions that come in later games, I’m ecstatic. When Luigi asks me to go pick up, erm, escorts to drop them off at the, erm, Fuzz Ball, I’m free to steal whatever car I want and pick up whomever I want, in no particular order. I find immense joy in jacking a cop car from the parking lot of the Policeman’s Ball and picking up women by spamming my siren at them.
I haven’t explored all of Liberty City yet, as I’m still progressing through some of the earlier parts of Claude’s story, but it’s clear that GTA 3 is the original owner of the hallmarks of Rockstar games. Crude humor, hilariously dark radio commercials, and an in-depth look at the denizens of a fictional New York City make me feel like I’m living in an alternate universe. No longer am I Alyssa Mercante, the Italian-American daughter of cops who obeys traffic laws. I’m now Claude, the (probably) Italian-American member of the mob who steals muscle cars. If you’ve never played GTA 3, drop into it just to enjoy the beautiful beginnings of Rockstar’s legacy and do a little bit of freelance crime. You’ll feel at home in no time, capeesh?
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