While in Amsterdam recently, I met an old friend who moved there from SoHo over 25 years ago. As we strolled along the quiet cobblestone streets and canals, past rows of unchained bicycles and “coffee shops” selling not skim milk cappuccino but dope, he asked about his old neighborhood. Megastores, hotels, Nike and computer ads painted on the walls of the buildings: He couldn’t believe it. His fifth-floor walk-up on Thompson Street, a rat-infested building with a drunk who slept in the hallway, was now a fancy SoHo co-op. And the restaurant on Houston Street where I had dinner just before I left for Holland had, in his day, been a seedy bar where he used to get drunk on tumblers of cheap red wine. The funky red-brick building is now a bed-and-breakfast with a chic Italian bistro on the ground floor.
It has only been open for a few weeks, but Velli looks as though it has been here for the better part of the century. You walk in through a long bar, past the kitchen, to the back dining room, which has an old wood floor and walls covered with thin sheets of distressed copper, giving the room a warm glow. Old black-and-white photographs hang on the walls, and bottles of wine are lined up on the shelves. We sat down at a table set with white paper on linen, and the waiter brought over a loaf of crusty peasant bread and a bowl of black olive paste. You could almost imagine a bunch of old men playing bocce in the back, the way they used to when this neighborhood was still seriously Italian.
The dining room was full, not with old men but with an eclectic crowd that included a TV talk-show host, several well-known artists, a generous smattering of beautiful young women and even my son’s dentist. Jean Claude Iacovelli, one of the owners, came over to greet us. I asked about his son, who is now 2 years old. He laughed and shrugged his shoulders.
“He’s doing fine. He has already pulled out the telephone, wrecked the TV and destroyed the VCR.”
I remember that age only too well. Having a 2-year-old is, as my mother once put it, like having a permanently drunk house guest.
“I can’t do a thing about it,” he went on. “Where I grew up, you got a good beating. But this is America, and my wife says you don’t do that here.”
Mr. Iacovelli has a raffish, nonchalant charm. (Something about him reminds me of Yves Montand, who was also Italian by birth but grew up in France: I guess it does something for you.) He has already transformed several small, nondescript SoHo spaces into delightful restaurants, starting with Jean Claude on Thompson (a bistro complete with one of those old French soccer games you work by cranking wooden handles), Cafe Lure (which he has since sold) and SoHo Steak. The prices have always been low and the food good. And like his other restaurants, Velli gets noisy-and the music gets turned up as the evening goes on-but the atmosphere is so friendly you don’t mind.
This time, Mr. Iacovelli and his veteran chef, Joseph Amatruda, have turned from French food to Italian. There’s not a first course above six bucks or a main course over $15.
Thin, buttery slices of beef carpaccio arrived draped over a salad of beets with pear and arugula; tuna carpaccio was seared and served with a salad of marinated fennel and celery. The calamari with roasted red peppers and basil was sensational, with a smoky taste from the grill. Bruschetta was also good, with tomato and fontina cheese or (my favorite) garlicky chicken liver topped with white beans. These were better choices than the pappa al pomodoro, which didn’t have much of the promised taste of white truffle oil.
In Italian restaurants in this neighborhood, if you got sambuca, it would come in a glass at the end of dinner, laced with coffee beans, and the waiter would set it alight (and you would light the wrappers on your amaretto cookies, which would fly up to the ceiling). But we are more sensible these days. At Velli, the sambuca is flamed not in a glass, but on a nice piece of striped bass, in a takeoff on the Provençal dish of red mullet flambé with Pernod. The striped bass was delicious, stuffed with parsley and topped with rosemary and sage leaves.
Lobster in a fennel and artichoke broth was sweet and fresh, but unyielding to their flavors. “The only thing a lobster gives in to is a heavy thermidor,” said the friend who was eating it rather glumly, setting himself back firmly in the New York of at least 30 years ago. (Ironically, he now lives in Amsterdam, where the food is still light-years behind New York.)
My favorite main courses were the tuna, which comes in a thick wedge, grilled rare, with spicy broccoli rabe and chickpeas, and the juicy veal chop with portobello mussels and farro, an Italian grain that reminded me of puffed wheat. Fresh fettuccine tossed in a shell of parmigiano reggiano with truffle oil, prosciutto and more cheese, was also very good. But forget the cavatelli with mussels and asparagus, which was impossibly chewy.
For dessert, there were tiramisù and a pale, rich but light chocolate mousse. Mr. Iacovelli insisted on bringing over a slice of a cake made with cream and pears for us to try. “Isn’t it great? Don’t ask me the name, I can’t remember.”
When the bed-and-breakfast part of Velli opens, rooms will cost $100 a night. If the rooms are half as pleasant as the restaurant, it will be a great bargain-even if it is a lot more than the $57 a month my friend used to pay for his apartment a couple of blocks south.