As word spread about the closing of Forlini’s, an old Italian restaurant in Chinatown that became a haunt for fashionistas, artists and writers who delighted in its antiquated red-sauce glory, a procession of devotees visited Baxter Street hoping to savor one last serving of veal Marsala. But they were too late.
“Forlini’s has been sold,” read a note on its wooden doors. “Thank you for memories!!”
One pilgrim was Harrison Johnson, a lanky 30-year-old tech entrepreneur, who peered through its windows last week as kitchen staff lugged out crates of vegetables, canned sauces and dusty wine bottles toward a van waiting down the block.
“I was going to have my wedding reception here in a few weeks,” he said. “I’ll always remember the time I tried ordering the tortellini and they told me, ‘We can’t do the tortellini.’ I said, ‘Why? You always have the tortellini.’ And the waiter said, ‘Tortellini lady died. So, no more tortellini.’”
“When it first started happening, I noticed it on Instagram,” he said. “I began seeing the old paintings on their walls and their booth seats appearing in people’s pictures, and I was like, ‘Are people starting to go to Forlini’s?’”
Since the 1950s, the family-owned restaurant — just down the street from the Manhattan Criminal Courts Building — was a standby for the courthouse crowd, serving lobster fra diavolo and chicken cacciatore to generations of judges, lawyers, secretaries and bail bondsmen. It underwent an unintended metamorphosis in 2018, after Vogue magazine hosted a starry pre-Met Gala party there, luring a new breed of regulars that included magazine editors, designers, stylists and skaters. The art crowd and the downtown literary set also adopted Forlini’s as a canteen.
As Eater reported last week, the Forlini family recently sold the building that housed their establishment for an undisclosed sum to an unknown buyer. The family had purchased 91-93 Baxter Street in the late 1960s, and it had been listed for $15 million in 2019.
Behind the restaurant’s locked doors, things have been busy since the owners’ rush to vacate the premises.
Attorneys and detectives who swilled martinis at Forlini’s long before its young customers were born dropped by to hug staff members goodbye. Regulars distinguished enough to have been honored with booth plaques bearing their names have retrieved them as keepsakes. An associate of Robert M. Morgenthau, the former Manhattan district attorney, who died in 2019 at 99 and used to eat at Forlini’s twice a week, also arrived to secure his plaque, the owners said.
Among those paying their respects was Judge Ruth Pickholz, 73, who stopped in to collect her plaque last Friday. “They’re making me one last chicken parm for takeout,” she said. “My final 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 business, handed out bonus checks. The celebratory mood stood in contrast to the shock and alarm among the restaurant’s younger fans on social media, who probably weren’t thinking much about the security that selling a building in Manhattan can provide to someone entering retirement.
Seated beside one of their pink banquettes, the Forlini cousins said they had wrestled with the decision, adding that they wouldn’t miss their respective early morning commutes from Dobbs Ferry and West Nyack.
“In our hearts we both wanted to stay, but then you think of reality,” Derek Forlini said. “He’s 69, and I’m 65. It’s hard, but we’re leaving while we’re still on top. That judges knew us by name was honor alone.”
“We have other family involved with the building, so it’s also not that simple,” said Joe Forlini, explaining that they owned the property with eleven extended family members who weren’t affiliated with the restaurant, most in their 60s. “They all wanted to get out, so we decided to go along with them. It was time.”
“We looked at what it might be like staying here under new owners,” he added, “but they’d probably quadruple the rent.”
What did they make of the stylish newcomers who flocked to the place in its final years?
“All the kids and art galleries were great to us,” Derek Forlini said. “They filled our bar, and we don’t have a bad word to say about them. Lots of them became our friends.”
The cousins returned to their bittersweet task.
Derek planted kisses on the cheeks of his old customers. Joe began looking into who could appraise the paintings on the walls, some of which depict the countryside of Groppallo, the Northern Italian village that the family patriarch Joseph Forlini emigrated from in 1938. On Tuesday they started removing the restaurant’s red signage.
Because of the abrupt closure, most devotees of Forlini’s didn’t get to say goodbye. Among them was Mike Pepi, 36, a writer and art critic who feasted at the restaurant with friends last month, unaware that he was enjoying his final plate of Forlini’s diced chicken, a dish served with potatoes, onions and cherry peppers.
“What’s really vanishing in New York with old places like Forlini’s are places where you can hold court,” Mr. Pepi said. “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 to go now?”