Vinny Vella, Actor and Pulse of Little Italy, Dies at 72

Posted on: February 22nd, 2019 at 5:00 am by

Vinny during a Little Italy bbq in 1995, Photo: Eddie Panta

Who’s better than you? Vinny, that’s Who.

Little Italy residents this week are mourning the loss of Vinny Vella.

The local legend, and character actor, died of complications from liver cancer on Wednesday (February 20) at the age of 72. He is survived by his wife Margaret-Anne, and his children Benjamin and Anthony Hernandez, Lauren and Jennifer Vella, and Vinny Vella Jr., who resides in Florida with his wife and two kids.

Thoughts, prayers, and fond memories of the neighborhood fixture were shared on Facebook and Instagram, where friends, neighbors, and family posted photos and reminisced about Vella’s life. The undercurrent throughout was that of bemoaning the loss of the very Little Italy that Vinny had come to represent.

Vinny with Jim Jarmusch in 2017, Photo: Eddie Panta

While best known for his heart-stopping performance as Artie Piscano in Casino, and playing the role of Jimmy “the rat” Petrille in The Sopranos, it was the story of Vinny’s early life captured by local filmmaker John Huba in the 1999 documentaryHey Vinny, that endeared him to the neighborhood.

In the mid-1990s, Hey Vinny could be heard called out more than a few times a day as Vinny sat perched outside of Albanese Meat Market on Elizabeth Street, hanging out with his friend Moe the Butcher. In those days, Vinny was the eyes and ears on the street at a time when finding an apartment meant finding the guy in the ‘hood that was in the know. For many newbies to the old school neighborhood, Vinny was the go-to-guy for info on newly vacated apartments, where to park the car, not to mention which girls were newly single.

Vinny with Robert DeNiro filming The Irishman, Photo: Eddie Panta

In 2016, both Hey Vinny and the newly released documentary, Mulberry Street, by director Paul Stone, were coupled as a double-feature for a past vs. present look at Little Italy as part of Elizabeth Street Garden’s “This Is Little Italy” film event. The outdoor screening brought together hundreds of people, including lifelong residents, in support of Vinny, and the garden, and provided an opportunity to reflect on how the neighborhood has changed. Monsignor Sakano of Old Saint Patrick’s fondly remembers Vinny humbly approaching him after the screening and apologizing for the profanity he used in the 1990s documentary.

A few months later, Vinny gave a rousing speech at a rally to save the garden which garnered wild applause and hugs for his unabashed statements against the City’s plan to raze the garden. After which, he joked about adding “community activist” to his resume.

Vinny filmed his last role opposite his longtime friend Robert DeNiro in Martin Scorsese’s highly-anticipated feature, The Irishman. His posthumous appearance is as a butcher in the epic biopic of Jimmy Hoffa set to premiere on Netflix next fall.

Vinny during a rally for the Elizabeth Street Garden, Photo: Eddie Panta

Even as Vinny battled his illness, he continued to charm locals and tourists alike with his tongue-in-cheek wise-guy routine while visiting his area haunts. No longer hearing his catchphrase greeting to locals lucky enough to have known him – “Who’s better than You?” – is a tough pill for this neighborhood to swallow.

He is already missed.

“As long as I can make people laugh, tell stories, have my friends and my family around me… Hey, who the hell’s better than me?”
-Vinny Vella’s last line in Hey Vinny, filmed in 1999.

Vinny and wife Margaret-Anne, courtesy of John Huba’s “Hey Vinny”

Recent Stories

Friday’s Under $40: Little Italy

In our new Friday column, contributor Sara Graham hits the streets to find cheap eats and affordable things to do during these weird times. Like many New Yorkers, I’m working from home and I’m definitely developing aches and pains from sitting on an uncomfortable dining chair as I type away from my “kitchen office.” It’s […]

Major Hoarding Happening Beneath Hotel Scaffolding on Orchard Street

Somebody call Hoarders, there’s a junk mound on Orchard Street. For the last few months, a homeless man has been camping beneath the decade-old scaffold affixed to the hotel at 139 Orchard Street (aka the Allen Street Hotel). The individual gradually amassed a collection of garbage, furniture, and other prized street possessions. And apparently, the […]

Report: Boba Guys Faces Allegations of Sexual Harassment and Racism

Boba Guys, the San Francisco-based tea chain with locations in Los Angeles, New York, and across the Bay Area, is the focus of fresh allegations of racial discrimination and sexual harassment, just weeks after it fired a manager for racist comments allegedly posted to social media in 2018. This runs counter to the public advocacy […]

Ludlow & Hester Nail Spa Fades from its Namesake Block

Just as phase 3 of the city’s reopening gets going this week, one Lower East Side salon won’t be returning. Ludlow & Hester Nail Salon, located at 29 Ludlow Street, closed in March in observance of state guidelines for the coronavirus lockdown. Spa chairs inside the six-year-old spa lingered in the interim, awaiting clientele. Until […]

Watch as Bandits with Crowbars Steal ATM on Ludlow Street [VIDEO]

Bandits are certainly emboldened by the apparent sense of lawlessness around the Lower East Side these days. And Hell Square is no exception. Police say that on May 21, two African American males stole the ATM stationed outside El Sombrero at Ludlow and Stanton Streets. A witness reported seeing the crooks haul the entire machine […]