This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a new regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.
The answer to “Who Goes There?” as it pertains to Forlini’s right now is, of course, no one. The conventional scuttlebutt on this family-owned, half-century-old restaurant—a lone life raft of Italian cuisine in the great China Sea below Canal Street—is that is survives on the patronage of the judges, lawyers and various legal professionals who work at the hulking Manhattan Criminal Courts Building just across Baxter Street. And that scuttlebutt is true. But those courtroom jockeys are all on holiday in August.
“This is a big vacation month for us,” said the smiling, moustachioed bartender, whom I had pretty much all to myself. “Very slow.” Why not just close during August? “We close only one day a year, Christmas Day. There’s still enough people to stay open.” Among those few people on a recent night were a family whose son kept fleeing the table to play a video game in the bar area, and a resident loudmouth holding forth on subjects including Russian literature, politics, the Romanian revolution of 1989, actor Peter Ustinov, and a married couple, known to both he and the restaurant’s manager, who had put on a show of bad behavior the previous evening. “That was what you would call a sketch,” said the manager, with exacting syntax.
Lunches are the big thing here, not dinner. I ate at one of the tables opposite the bar. It seemed more convivial. When it’s sparsely populated, the airless main dining room—with its salmon-colored booths, tan walls and bad oil paintings—can feel like an upholstered mausoleum. The narrow bar, where it is also possible to eat, feels more like a tavern you might find in any New York neighborhood.
I’ve eaten at Forlini’s a few times. The food is not special, though I could see getting attached to it if I ate there five lunches a week. I acted on a tip that spaghetti and meatballs, though not on the printed menu, is available and good. True on both counts. Plus, it is one of the cheapest entrees available—$9!—on a menu that can skew pricey. I did not opt for the numerous listed cocktails which the menu “suggested”: Kir Royale, Rusty Nail, Singapore Sling, Pink Squirrel. (Bet they were already suggesting those back in 1956, when Forlini’s opened).
I thought of asking my usual question: do the proprietors of the restaurant own the building they occupy. But they I thought: What’s the difference? When you’re best customers are judges and lawyers, I think you’re chances of losing a fight with a landlord are pretty slim.
—Brooks of Sheffield