Tom Martinelli, 73, gallerist who loved Village

Tom Martinelli.
Tom Martinelli.

BY KATHERINE MARTINELLI | Thomas Peter Martinelli (Tom), a native New Yorker and longtime Village resident, died of a heart attack on May 28 in his home. He was 73. His candor, humor, knowledge of all things, and incredible home cooking will be missed by everyone in the neighborhood who knew him, and most of all by his family.

Though Tom grew up in Flushing, his father, Angelo, lived on Prince St. above the Vesuvio Bakery with his parents and five siblings after he immigrated from Avigliano, Italy, in the early 1900s. Angelo met Barbara, a first-generation Hungarian, at the Roseland Ballroom and they wed, moved to Queens, and had three children, of which Tom was the middle child.

Tom’s love affair with the neighborhood started when he took the advice of his “Problems in Democracy” teacher at Holy Cross High School to get out of Queens and explore the Village. It was the late ’50s and he was immediately entranced. After a year at the Rochester Institute of Technology — where going to jazz clubs became more important than attending classes — Tom returned to the city to work as a printer at Jonathan Swift and Sons, at West and Bethune Sts., where his father was the night foreman. He worked there for 15 years, while also taking night classes at Queens College. This was interrupted by the Vietnam War, during which he served as a Naval photographer aboard the U.S.S. Forrestal, alongside John McCain.

Tom moved to Jackson Heights for a few years, then finally rented a studio apartment in his beloved Greenwich Village, where he had spent nearly every free weekend of his adult life. He even took the bus to the city every weekend when he was in basic training in Virginia, so he could hang out in his favorite Village watering holes, like the Lion’s Head and the 55 Bar.

Tom met his wife, Marjorie, in 1978 when mutual friends invited them to dinner at the Chinatown mainstay Wo Hop. They had a fun meal, followed by pastries and coffee in Little Italy and a bar crawl, led by Tom, through the Village. Both attest to the fact that it was love at first sight. Within a year, they were married and moved across the hall to a one-bedroom apartment, where they have lived since.

In 1979, Tom and Marjorie quit their jobs, pooled their combined knowledge of the art and printing worlds, and purchased A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, on Bleecker St. They ran the art gallery, which specialized in contemporary prints and custom framing, until Tom’s retirement in 2012. The gallery was the last of the old-guard, independent shops on the block.

Over the years, Tom became a neighborhood fixture. He could often be found standing outside the gallery “watching the world go by,” and chatting with neighbors and tourists alike. He counted many of his regular customers as friends, including luminaries, like Gregory Hines, Brice Marden and Jack Levine. Hines couldn’t pass the gallery without popping his head in to shout, “Hey, do you know the way to Carnegie Hall?” To which Tom would unfailingly reply, “Practice, practice, practice!” Tom had his shtick with everyone, from stars to the UPS driver.

Each week, Tom would scan the local grocery circulars and pick out the best deals, making trips to multiple stores, if necessary. He would ask the butcher to trim his roasts or specially cut steaks to his specifications (the thicker the better). Almost every Saturday, he and his wife strolled over to the Abington Square Farmers Market for flounder and scallops. And every night he cooked. He prepared huge Italian feasts, simmered Sunday sauce all day, and smoked up the apartment cooking steaks and juicy burgers. He frequented many of the same shops that had been around as long as he, and had a particular affinity for Raffetto’s, Murray’s Cheese, Faicco’s, Rocco’s and Porto Rico Coffee. On the rare occasions he let someone else cook for him, Gene’s, Sevilla and Pearl Oyster Bar were among his favorite restaurants.

Of Tom’s many accomplishments, the one he was most proud of was being a father. He and Marjorie raised their two daughters, Katherine and Christina, in the gallery and their one-bedroom apartment around the corner on 10th St. The gallery was an extension of their home, where baby walkers and bicycles could be found alongside Motherwells and Hockneys.

He loved being a parent above all else. When someone he cared about had a baby, his words of congratulations were always: “Now you know the meaning of life.” Tom often said that the greatest time of his life was when his two daughters were in elementary school at P.S. 3. The cooperative, liberal school welcomed parents into its classrooms, and Tom could be found there most weekday mornings, and was a beloved father figure to all the kids.

Tom maintained his love for photography, and rarely left home without a small snapshot camera, which had been exhaustively researched in Consumer Reports before purchasing. One of his many hobbies was scanning his old negatives, which revealed decades worth of photographs of a changing neighborhood, in addition to plenty of his family.

Although in some ways a classic New York curmudgeon, Tom was exuberant about the things he loved, and never missed a chance to brag about his family. Becoming a grandfather brought out the best in him, and he became even more silly, loving and encouraging than his daughters remember from their own childhood. He and Henry, his 2-year-old grandson — who lovingly called him “Papa Tom” — had a special relationship that made everyone who witnessed them together smile.

Tom’s passing leaves a hole not only in the hearts of his loved ones, but also in this neighborhood. Tom is survived by his wife Marjorie, daughters Katherine and Christina, son-in-law Evan, grandson Henry, and sister Ann, as well as numerous beloved cousins, nieces and nephews. He will be missed.