If you're looking for a good time in the old New York, you have to go to Forlini's on a night when Angelo Ruggiero is performing in the back room.
For one thing, Forlini's is something of a hidden treasure. Cut off from Little Italy by Canal Street, it's tucked away on Baxter, surrounded by Chinatown and unspoiled by tourists. The out-of-towners don't seem to know the place exists.
Established in 1943, Forlini's is pure and authentic. New Yorkers eat there. It's a favorite place for judges, lawyers, and other people involved in the justice system, thanks to its location close to the State Supreme Court house.
The rooms are filled with diamond-tufted, peach-colored banquettes and booths, the walls hung with an odd and fascinating assortment of massive oil paintings in heavy, gilded frames.
The staff -- all family -- greet you with warmth and respect. Don't expect any "fixed-up," "revived" Italian food. Forlini's is old-school red sauce all the way. The food's fine, but I don't go to restaurants for the food. I go for the place itself, for the history and the people. For the emotions that the space generates.
And--especially on the nights when Mr. Ruggiero sings--Forlini's is loaded with history, emotion, and wonderful people.
The crowd of regulars shows up early. Italian-Americans, they come in from the outer boroughs, Jersey, and Long Island. They all know each other, and if you haven't been before, you might feel like you're crashing somebody's Golden Anniversary party. But if you're friendly, unfussy, and have fun, you'll be welcomed.
Ruggiero's wife, who looks a little like Liza Minnelli in a glittering tunic and fedora, sets up the music machine and makes the rounds, greeting each person. Then Ruggiero, as bald as Mr. Clean with a big, bright smile, takes the mike. The crowd goes wild. It's all Sinatra, 1950s doo-wop, and Neapolitan folk songs. Ladies swoon. Everyone sings along. During the Italian songs, people swing their napkins through the air.
By the time dinner is done, everyone is dancing in the narrow spaces between the tables (take a look), and you've made some new best friends.
Ruggiero performs at Forlini's about once a month or so. Next up, he'll be there September 5. Be sure to make a reservation.