This Saturday, Volare Restaurant will serve its last steak, its last dish of pasta, its last basket of incomparable bread. After that, people walking along West 4th Street, between Washington Square West and Sixth Avenue, will notice, off to their right (if they notice at all), three iron steps, guarded by a low railing and flanked by black windows, leading to a padlocked door in a worn brick building.
Look that building up on the internet and you’ll be informed that 147 West 4th Street was built in 1900. I don’t believe that for a moment: I’d bet money that it has housed residents, and a restaurant downstairs, since Lincoln’s day. In any event, its restaurant has borne different names over the years. As early as I can trace it, the place was called Bertolotti’s, which changed to Mother Bertolotti’s in the late 1920s, to distinguish it from the nightclub a family member named Bill Bertolotti opened under his name a few hundred yards away on West 3rd Street. A 1934 New York City restaurant guide called Tips on Tables lists only the nightclub, which it says is located in a desolation of “shuttered tool shops, storehouses, and decrepit walk-ups.” Apparently Mother abandoned her original nest to preside here, though, for “the Bertolottis, the Neapolitan tribe of brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters, have been dispensing spaghetti in Greenwich Village for the last thirty years. At the domestic head is Mother Bertolotti, the receptionist, the queen of the culinaries, the consultant of hungry customers, and the maternal confidant of her favorite patrons.” Five years later, Mother was back where she belonged.
The peppily named guide Where to Dine in Thirty-Nine has her once again at “147 West 4th (Tel: STuyvesant 9-8565). All good Villagers know Bertolotti’s, for various members of the Bertolotti family have offered hospitality to them for years. Many of the artists and writers who made Mother Betolotti’s their haven have become famous, but they still drift back for old time’s sake and FILLING ITALIAN FOOD!”
The place’s last appearance under Mother’s name comes in the 1971 Cue Guide to Dining in New York: “Italian and American food has been served here for generations. It’s an awfully nice place, the staff is friendly, and prices are right.”
None of that changed, but the name did shortly after, when an Italian restaurateur named Mimmo bought it and called it Volare. When he retired, he sold it to Sal and Falco, who had started out there as waiters — so it’s been “an awfully nice place” for at least a century now.
By then, people who’d never been there assumed that it was just another “real old Greenwich Village Italian,” meaning picturesque, and probably not all that good. Granted, it was plenty picturesque, and it was all that good.
It was also a joy to enter. Sometimes a restaurant feels just right, through a complex blend of lighting and decoration and — this can be sensed — an at-once melancholy and enlivening warmth of antiquity. Like many of the more modest restaurants at the time of its birth, Volare was in a deep and narrow room, slightly below street level, with elaborate carved wooden booths running along the walls and tables set between them. Those booths were something of a mystery, as they bore curious initials, two to a booth. Nobody living knows what those runes mean.
In each booth hung a skillful, slightly racy painting showing underdressed women from some 1910 fantasyland tantalizing or mocking helpless men. They were done by a theatrical designer in the 1930s, who traded them for his meals.
I must have walked past Volare many times without noticing it, until my wife and I moved into an apartment a block north of it 30 years ago. One day I walked in and pretty much never left. No room, not at my house, not in school, not in any club, has made me feel more instantly at home than Volare, with its whiskey-colored light and the choir of mellow brass lamps running the length of the ceiling.
During those years I became the editor of a history magazine, and when I did, I learned — as everyone in charge of anything does — that there is no such thing as a small interruption to the working day. Whether it’s a paper-clip shortage or the danger of missing a press date, everything takes an hour. So I began spending my lunchtimes working at Volare, free from all interruptions. When the magazine went out of business in the dire financial year of 2007, I was fortunate enough to get a book contract. I’ve since written four books in the last booth on the right. I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do now.
I haven’t mentioned the food, because my fondness for the place rises from deeper springs, but it was terrific. The Italian — it was of course still Italian — cooking was splendid, and Volare was also a secret steakhouse, one that didn’t disappoint the most devoted frequenter of Peter Luger.
And enough people did know. I’ve never met a more varied clientele. John Sexton, the 15th president of New York University, was often there, interviewing potential hires or entertaining students. When I was writing a book about the Monitor and the Merrimack, the Civil War ironclads that were the first two metal ships ever to meet in battle, I met the delightful great-great-granddaughter of the man who had designed the Rebel one. And one day I found myself near Gordon Brown; the prime minister of Great Britain was interested in those same ships. I sent him a copy of my book, and he responded with a gracious thank-you note. As John Masefield put it, “Life’s a very narrow street.”
But of course the alchemy of such a place always depends on the proprietors, and it was Sal and Falco who set the tone — along with the taciturn, amazingly reliable chef, who, like them, spent 30 years there. Those three respected the deeply marinated history of their enterprise while always keeping it fresh and lively. They made sure, night after night, year after year, decade after decade, that everyone who came into Volare through its strangely welcoming dull-red door left happy.
Well, now I’ve left. And for the first time, I’m not happy about it at all.