Velma is a brand new neighborhood restaurant and bar with a classic red-sauce menu—pizzas, pastas, parms—on a bustling stretch of Seneca Avenue in Ridgewood, Queens. It's the second restaurant in the area from Paulina Grigonis and J.R. Savage, who also run the four-year-old Gordo's Cantina right over the borough border in Bushwick.
Their first place reflects Grigonis's heritage (she's from León, in Guanajuato, Mexico); the new spot is a homage to Savage's family, "straight-up Italian-Americans from Queens," as Grigonis put it to Hell Gate. The couple have lived in Ridgewood for about seven years, and Velma has been open for three weeks.
But if you didn't know any of that, and popped into Velma cold, you'd think the joint had been here for years. Decades even.
The big front room has tin walls chipped all to hell, a tin ceiling, exposed raw brick and battered old wood beams. There's a twisty, wiggly-worm-shaped bar, which encourages group hangs, and, for now anyway (it might get removed to add more seating), a full-sized pool table by the front door. Fingers crossed this beauty stays. I can't remember the last time I saw one of these at a new place.
There's a more intimate dining room in the back, with red-and-white checked tablecloths and framed family photos of the staff hanging on wood-paneled walls. Throughout the space an abundance of random decor—taxidermy, weird "statement" table lamps, a stack of old luggage—add to the lived-in vibe.
And it's not like Grigonis and Savage planned to open such a retro-feeling restaurant. When they signed the lease near the end of 2021, the space had been a 99-cent store for years and the couple only discovered the vintage infrastructure when they tore down the drop ceiling and knocked down the walls. "We were like, we hit the jackpot," said Grigonis.
Plus they've had a ton of downtime here this past year, waiting for months to get the FDNY to approve their range hood kitchen. "It was a nightmare," said Grigonis. "We submitted the plans last May, and only just heard back. We've had our liquor license since August, the kitchen staff has been ready to go, but we couldn't open. Everyone says, 'Oh it looks so beautiful you did such a good job.' Well, we had a long time to work on it, moving things around, adding stuff, and trying different pizzas."
Those pizzas are at the heart of the Velma menu. You can get slices, either cheese or pepperoni, which are made in classic NYC-fold style and are really good if you love a ton of cheese. Seriously, these are among the cheesiest slices in town, rivaling Sal and Carmine's for sheer gooeyness.
The grandma pie is outstanding, not nearly as thick and bready as you'd might expect, redolent with garlic, charred without fear. It's huge, too, easily enough for two or even three people for $26. The round pies also feed at least two, and come in varieties like vodka pepperoni, potato and rosemary, and a meaty "manolo special" with ricotta.
There are also a half dozen splittable sandwiches on the menu, made on loaves of crusty semolina bread. These aren't over-stuffed, they're just long and large. The roast pork with broccoli, roasted garlic, and provolone hit the spot, as did "the Jimmy," with its fried chicken cutlet, prosciutto for some funk, and thick slices of mozzarella. For something snackier, get the little bag of chicken nuggets.
So that's the bar menu, which may or may not merge with the full dining room menu debuting next week. A sneak peek at the latter shows several pastas, a highly Instagrammable "caprese stack," and entrees like chicken parmigiana and a grilled pork chop.
But however the menu logistics and pool table situation shakes out, Grigonis and Savage are just psyched to be open, feeding their friends and neighbors in a fun place to hang out. "We've gotten a good response from the neighborhood so far," said Grigonis. "I mean, they've seen the sign outside for the longest time, so everyone's like, 'finally.'"
Velma is located at 584 Seneca Avenue, between Menahan and Grove Streets, and is currently open on Tuesday through Thursday from 12:00 noon to 9:00 p.m., and on Friday and Saturday from 12:00 to 10:00.