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

Help Support Gem Spa on St. Mark’s Place Tomorrow

A perfect storm of misfortune has plagued the Gem Spa these last few months, causing a precipitous loss in business. From landlord issues to the temporary ban on cigarette sales and the loss of Zoltar, it’s hitting the bottom line. Fear of forever closure is palpable at 131 Second Avenue. The plight of the East […]

With Champ Depot Out, Bowery Corner Gains Another Gallery

For more than a decade, the Champ Depot restaurant supply company occupied 176 Bowery. Now, its former home is completely empty and fetching for a new deep-pocketed tenant. There is a torrent of listings on Craigslist fishing for suitors (“last corner retail in Nolita”), yet one was already found to occupy the second floor. It’s […]

‘Partybus Bake Shop’ Parks itself on Essex Street

A different kind of party bus is rolling into the Lower East Side this fall. One ostensibly without the drunken mess. It’s Partybus Bake Shop, an artisanal bakery opening in the former Chinese seafood wholesaler at 31 Essex Street. Upon debut next month, expect a “rotating seasonal menu [of] classics including breads, pies, and cookies […]

Scaffolding Finally Deposed from the DL

It’s trading one eyesore for another. The longstanding scaffolding attached to the facade of The DL on Delancey Street is finally gone. Workers deposed the iron appendages earlier this week. You’ll recall that in July 2016,  a chunk of exterior dislodged from 95 Delancey and tumbled to the sidewalk below. The structural collapse resulted in […]

COLORS Restaurant Announces Return to Stanton Street 2 Years After it Closed Down

Two years after COLORS restaurant shuttered, news comes down the pike of its revival. COLORS moved from NoHo to 176 Stanton Street in the winter of 2017, but didn’t quite make a dent. It closed within months of opening. Now, a report that it’ll return sometime next month. The announcement arrived yesterday, on the eighteenth […]