March 13, 2000 12:00 PM

What should have been the brightest night of her life left a bitter aftertaste for Edie Falco. Last September, as she picked up a best actress Emmy for her portrayal of loyal, hard-edged Mafia wife Carmela Soprano on HBO’s The Sopranos, Falco had no inkling that E! fashion felines Joan and Melissa Rivers had already targeted her pricey Pamela Dennis skirt and halter top. After the show the duo turned to a panel of style experts who anointed Falco among the worst-dressed celebs. Melissa defends their verdict: “Her dress just wasn’t polished-looking,” she says.

“And this by someone whose claim to fame is that her mother is famous,” says Falco, 36, striking back from her spacious, river-view Manhattan loft. “Venom gets into my system when I talk about this. I haven’t stopped talking about it since it happened.”

Not that the Riverses should start worrying about being fitted for the traditional cement overshoes. Unlike Carmela Soprano, perpetually exasperated with unfaithful capo spouse Tony (James Gandolfini), Falco herself has never been happier. “I have the best job, a boyfriend I love and the dog I love,” she reports. Especially that dog—a mixed breed named Marley. “She always takes the dog to work,” says Falco’s beau of four years, John Devlin, 42, an assistant director of TV commercials. “The dog is a set dog,” he says. “The Teamsters walk and feed her.”

These days, though, Marley is bunking with Falco’s family, since Falco, her second season of Sopranos completed, is now in London reprising her acclaimed 1999 role as an alcoholic wife in the Broadway play Side Man. Also in her absence, Judy Berlin, a Sundance Festival prizewinner in which she plays a suburban Long Island girl aspiring to stardom, opened nationally on Feb. 25.

“I wrote the part for her,” says director Eric Mendelsohn, a college classmate who grew up two towns away from Northport, N.Y., on Long Island, where the Brooklyn-born Falco’s family moved when she was 4. The second of four children of graphic artist Frank Falco and Judith Anderson, a graphics production coordinator and amateur actress who divorced when Edie was 14, she performed in plays at North-port High. In 1982, Falco enrolled at the State University of New York College at Purchase, where fellow drama majors included Wesley Snipes, Sherry Stringfield and Parker Posey.

Unlike them, Falco was relegated to supporting roles because, she says, “I wasn’t the classic ingenue type. I spent four years with blacked-out teeth and a Cockney accent. It broke my heart.” Determined to make it as an actress and fresh out of school, she moved to New York City in 1986. “Then nothing happened,” says Falco. Waitressing and soap-opera bit parts helped pay the bills until her career finally began to percolate in 1997, when a recurring role as a blinded cop’s wife on NBC’s Homicide led to her being cast as a seasoned prison guard on HBO’s Oz. Sopranos creator David Chase was impressed enough to ask her to audition for Carmela a year later and now says her casting was pivotal. “Without a real strong, shrewd wife like Carmela,” says Chase, “what you’d have is just another conventional Mob show with a bunch of wiseguys sitting around b.s.-ing and smoking in bars.”

Never married and with “no immediate plans” to change that, Falco says she was terrified at first about playing a wife and mother. For one thing, “Carmela can cook, but God knows I can’t,” she says. On the set for kitchen scenes, “they will tell her to do something to the food,” says Jamie-Lynn Sigler, 18, who plays daughter Meadow, “and she’ll say, ‘Do what? I don’t know what that is.’ ”

Her celebrity poses yet another challenge. Fans who stop her on the street “want you to mirror their sense of how magnificent you are,” she says. “But I am as magnificent—or unmagnificent—as I ever was. Nothing about that is going to change because I won an Emmy.”

Well, maybe one thing. Since her Emmy fashion embarrassment, HBO has hired a stylist to consult with Falco, and now her closet is filled with Donna Karans, Calvin Kleins and Armanis for special occasions. “I guess I will have to learn how to dress better,” she says, “but other than that, this is me. This is it.”

Michael A. Lipton

Ken Baker in New York City

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