In 1960, Lorenzo Anello lives in Belmont, an Italian-American neighborhood in The Bronx, with his wife Rosina and his 9-year old young son Calogero, who is fascinated by the local mobsters led by Sonny LoSpecchio. One day, Calogero witnesses a murder committed by Sonny in defense of an assaulted friend in his neighborhood. When Calogero chooses to keep quiet when questioned by NYPD detectives, Sonny takes a liking to him and gives him the nickname "C". Sonny's men offer Lorenzo a better paying job, but Lorenzo, preferring a law-abiding life as an MTA bus driver, politely declines. Sonny befriends Calogero and introduces him to his crew. Calogero earns tips amounting to $600 working in the Mafia bar and throwing dice, and is admonished harshly by Lorenzo when he discovers it. Lorenzo speaks severely to Sonny, returns the money, and angrily warns him to keep away from Calogero.
Eight years later, Calogero has grown into a young man who has been visiting Sonny regularly without his father's knowledge. Calogero is also part of a gang of local Italian-American boys, which concerns Sonny, who warns Calogero to keep away from them and focus more on his schoolwork. Later on, Calogero meets an African American girl named Jane Williams, and is smitten with her. Despite the high level of racial tension and dislike between Italian Americans and African Americans, Calogero arranges a date with Jane. He asks for advice from both his father and Sonny, with the latter lending Calogero his car. Later, Calogero's friends beat up the black cyclists who ride through their neighborhood, despite Calogero's attempts to defend them. One of the cyclists is revealed to be Jane's brother, Willie. Willie mistakes Calogero for one of the assailants. He then accuses "C" of beating him up when Calogero and Jane meet for their date. Calogero loses his temper over the accusation and Willie's lack of gratitude, responding by accidentally addressing him with a racial slur. He instantly regrets it, but it's too late. Heartbroken, Jane walks back to the car with Willie and leaves Calogero.
At home, Calogero is confronted by his father who just saw him driving Sonny's car. An argument ensues and Calogero storms out. Shortly thereafter, Calogero is confronted by Sonny and his crew, who found a bomb in Sonny's car and suspected Calogero of planning to assassinate him. Calogero tearfully proclaims his love for and dedication to Sonny. Sonny recognizes Calogero's innocence and allows him to leave. Lorenzo emerges to defend his son, but is held back by Sonny's men. The African-American boys egg the Italian-American boys' usual spot in retaliation for the previous beating, and Calogero's friends make a plan to strike back using Molotov cocktails. They try to force Calogero to participate, but Sonny stops the car and orders Calogero out. Calogero catches up with Jane, who tells him that Willie had since admitted that the boy who beat him up wasn't Calogero. Jane and Calogero make amends, but Calogero suddenly remembers his friends' plans to attack Jane's neighborhood, and the two rush to stop them. Calogero and Jane arrive to find the Italian-American boys' car in flames. During the attack, someone threw one of the Molotov cocktails back into the car window, igniting the remaining bottles. The resulting crash and explosion killed everyone in the vehicle.
Calogero rushes into the crowded bar to thank Sonny for saving his life, but an unnamed assailant shoots Sonny in the back of the head before Calogero can warn him. Calogero later learns that the assailant was the son of the man Sonny killed in front of Calogero's house eight years earlier. At Sonny's funeral, countless people come to pay their respects. When the crowd disperses, Carmine visits the funeral, claiming that Sonny once saved his life as well. Calogero does not recognize Carmine until he sees a scar on his forehead and realizes he was the assaulted man whom Sonny had defended eight years ago. Carmine tells Calogero that he will be taking care of the neighborhood for the time being, and promises Calogero help should he ever need anything. Carmine leaves just as Calogero's father unexpectedly arrives to pay his respects to Sonny, thanking him for saving his son's life. Lorenzo later says that he had never hated Sonny, but merely resented him for making Calogero grow up so quickly. Calogero makes peace with his father, and the two walk home together as Calogero narrates the lessons he learned from his two mentors.
Palminteri adapted the screenplay from his one-man show of the same name. Several characters' names are based on himself: his real name is Calogero Lorenzo Palminteri. The show had successful runs in Los Angeles and Off-Broadway. Palminteri would not sell the rights to his story unless he could write the screenplay and was guaranteed the role of Sonny. At one point he was offered one million dollars, but refused because his conditions were not met. Later, De Niro saw the show and approached Palminteri. He said he knew about Palminteri's refusing to sell the rights. He offered to go into a partnership with Palminteri and meet all of his conditions if De Niro could direct and play Lorenzo. De Niro said he was good to his word with only a handshake from Palminteri.
A Bronx Tale received positive reviews from critics. Rotten Tomatoes gave the film an approval rating of 96% based on 27 reviews. The site's critical consensus reads, "A Bronx Tale sets itself apart from other coming-of-age dramas thanks to a solid script, a terrific cast, and director Robert De Niro's sensitive work behind the camera." Metacritic gave it a weighted average score of 80 out of 100, based on 15 critics, indicating "generally positive reviews".
Critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars, calling it "a very funny movie sometimes, and very touching at other times. It is filled with life and colorful characters and great lines of dialogue, and De Niro, in his debut as a director, finds the right notes as he moves from laughter to anger to tears. What's important about the film is that it's about values."
In 2008, the American Film Institute nominated this film for its Top 10 Gangster Films list.
Sometime after the film's theatrical run, HBO released the movie on VHS, CD and in 1998 on DVD. The DVD is out of print, but in January 2010, Focus Features released an Amazon.com exclusive DVD copy of the film.