Finally, a good martini.
I have been grousing about cocktails in general and martinis specifically since they first started repopulating the trend space well over a year ago. One gripe is that most aren’t cold enough, gaining degrees as they wait to board for the short journey from bar to table. One solution is to simply sit at the former—one of my favorite configurations in any case, but not always realistic or even available. Another is the sidecar.
Extra’s always special. A taste of brisket before you order by the pound. A big tin of milkshake overflow. And a miniature carafe packed in ice bringing the kingly power to top off one’s own tipple. Some of the best bars in New York City, like Brooklyn’s 15-year-old Clover Club, serve some drinks like this. But it’s lesser-seen at newcomers like Velma, which opened in Queens last month and shares ownership with Gordo’s Cantina. This additional vessel alone, carrying that splash more of gin or vodka and dry vermouth, served with your wish of dirty or a twist, goes a long way to make it my favorite new martini destination.
Velma is a real neighborhood place with character and style. Up front, a pool table, a few roomy booths and high-back stools at the double-crescent bar top the black and white tiled floor under a painted pressed-tin ceiling. The small dining room in the back has aesthetic red sauce proclivities without feeling theme-y. It’s warm, inviting and familiar, with red-and-white checkered tablecloths and a collage of framed family photos covering one wood-paneled wall.
The menu mirrors that conceit, with a lot of what you’d expect done just as you’d hoped. Apps include fried mozzarella, ($14) and a pile of crispy outside, mild inside, golden calamari ($18), both served with—what else?!—a bright side of marinara sauce. Another starter, Velma’s caprese stack ($24), renders the standard salad vertical, towering with mozzarella, tomato and prosciutto among its primary ingredients.
Pasta, mains and pies like cheese, potato, grandma and a couple of specials like the titular variety with jalapeños, shallots, pimento green olives and pepperoni follow similarly successful formulas. The spicy vodka rigatoni—more precisely, snail-shaped lumache in lieu of the stated tubes—is appropriately textured with a zippy little zing to the sauce, and perfectly plated for one with room for a few shared tastes, if not exactly heaping like at the red sauce spots of memory.
The chicken parm ($27) is also wonderfully comforting, its thigh meat carefully butchered beneath its batter and pleasantly smothered by mozzarella and more marinara. Its only mild imperfection is that the breading can collect too densely in some places, but, in this setting, the effect actually makes it seem even more made with love. Velma's juicy chicken is likewise nice, aptly titled and rolled with prosciutto and mozzarella in a white wine reduction with crimini mushrooms. And a side of sautéed broccolini ($5), a curious miss in many kitchens, turn out great here, with tender stems and dainty florets in a hearty gloss of oil.
That martini that really sealed the deal for me is joined by other classics like Manhattans and Negronis, plus some sips with more recent buzz like espresso cocktails and sbagliatos, all $16. The food and drink menus work as well separately as they do together. There are plenty of bars with snacks and plenty of restaurants with ostensible seats at the bar, but increasingly few that pull double duty as casually elegantly as Velma.
The Atmosphere: A real neighborhood place with character and style.
The Food: Pizza, pasta and pleasant red sauce classics.
The Drinks: A good martini in a city running dry, plus more cocktails, wine and beer.
Velma is located at 584 Seneca Avenue. It is open Tuesday-Thursday from noon-9pm and Friday-Saturday from noon-10pm.