As news circulated of the closure of Forlini’s, an old Italian restaurant in Chinatown that became a haunt for fashionistas, artists and writers raved about the old-fashioned glory of red sauce, a procession of devotees visited Baxter Street in hopes of another last serving of veal to taste Marsala. But they were too late.
“Forlini’s is sold,” there was a note on the wooden doors. “Thanks for memories!!”
One pilgrim was Harrison Johnson, a lanky 30-year-old tech entrepreneur, who last week peered out the windows as kitchen staff lug crates of vegetables, canned sauces and dusty wine bottles to a van waiting ahead.
“In a few weeks I was going to have my wedding reception here,” he said. “I will always remember when I tried to order the tortellini and they said to me, ‘We can’t make the tortellini.’ I said why? You always have the tortellini.” And the waiter said, ‘Tortellini lady passed away. So no more tortellini.’”
“When it first happened, I noticed it on Instagram,” he said. “I started seeing the old paintings on their walls and their standing chairs appearing in people’s photos, and I was like, ‘Are people starting to go to Forlini’s?'”
Since the 1950s, the family business—just down the street from the Manhattan Criminal Courts Building—has been a courthouse standby, serving lobster fra diavolo and chicken cacciatore to generations of judges, lawyers, secretaries, and sureties. It underwent an unintended makeover in 2018, after Vogue magazine hosted a starry pre-Met Gala party there, attracting a new breed of patrons, including magazine editors, designers, stylists and skaters. The downtown arts crowd and literary decor also used Forlini’s as a canteen.
As Eater reported last week, the Forlini family recently sold the building that housed their establishment to an undisclosed buyer for an undisclosed amount. The family had bought 91-93 Baxter Street in the late 1960s and it was listed for $15 million in 2019.
Behind the closed doors of the restaurant it has been busy since the owners are in a hurry to leave the premises.
Lawyers and detectives who drank martinis at Forlini’s long before the young clients were born stopped by to say hello to employees. Regulars distinguished enough to be honored with maternity plates bearing their names have recovered them as mementos. An associate of Robert M. Morgenthau, the former Manhattan District Attorney who died in 2019 at age 99 and ate twice a week at Forlini’s, also arrived to secure his plaque, the owners said.
Among those who paid their respects was Judge Ruth Pickholz, 73, who stopped by last Friday to pick up her plaque. “They’re making one last chicken parm for takeout,” she said. “My last meal from Forlini’s.”
That same day, the staff gathered at a long table. Chefs and waiters drank Chianti and applauded as Joe and Derek Forlini, the third-generation cousins who ran the company, handed out bonus checks. The celebratory mood was in stark contrast to the shock and alarm among the restaurant’s younger fans on social media, who probably didn’t think much about the security selling a Manhattan building could provide to someone retiring.
Sitting next to one of their pink benches, Forlini’s cousins said they’d struggled with the decision, adding that they wouldn’t miss their respective early morning shuttles from Dobbs Ferry and West Nyack.
“In our hearts we both wanted to stay, but then you think of reality,” said Derek Forlini. “He’s 69 and I’m 65. It’s hard, but we’re leaving while we’re still at the top. It was only an honor for judges to know us by name.”
“We have other family involved in the building, so it’s not that easy either,” said Joe Forlini, explaining that they owned the property with 11 extended family members who were not affiliated with the restaurant, most of them in their 60s. “They all wanted to leave, so we decided to go with them. It was time.”
“We looked at what it would be like to stay here under new owners,” he added, “but they would probably quadruple the rent.”
What did they think of the stylish newcomers who flocked to the place in recent years?
“All the kids and art galleries have been great for us,” said Derek Forlini. “They filled our bar and we don’t have a bad word to say about them. Many of them became our friends.”
The cousins returned to their bittersweet task.
Derek planted kisses on the cheeks of his old customers. Joe began investigating who could judge the paintings on the walls, some of which depict the landscape of Groppallo, the northern Italian village from which the family patriarch Joseph Forlini emigrated in 1938. On Tuesday, they began removing the red signage from the restaurant.
Due to the abrupt closure, most of Forlini’s supporters have not been able to say goodbye. Among them was Mike Pepi, 36, a writer and art critic who feasted with friends at the restaurant last month, unaware that he was enjoying his last plate of Forlini’s diced chicken, a dish served with potatoes, onions and cherry peppers.
“What’s really disappearing in New York with old places like Forlini’s is places you can keep straight,” said Mr. Pepi. “Places where you can have a forum. You can’t hold court at a Sweetgreen.’
“The big question,” he added, “is where are we all going now?”