Chef Marc Forgione always wanted to open a restaurant called Forge.
“It’s my nickname—it’s always been my nickname,” explained the 30-year-old mohawked kitchen maestro, who trained under the tutelage of such acclaimed chefs as Kazuto Matsusaka, Pino Maffeo and Laurent Tourondel, not to mention his own father, American cooking pioneer Larry Forgione, who is also known to use the same alias.
“It’s my dad’s nickname, it’s my brother’s nickname, it’s my sister’s nickname,” the culinary scion said. “Never mind just my immediate family—my cousins, my uncles, I mean, every person in my family’s nickname is Forge.
“I don’t even think it was, ‘Do we want to open a restaurant?’ I think it was, ‘Do we want to open Forge?’ I’ve known I was going to name my restaurant Forge since I decided I wanted to open a restaurant.”
Sure enough, last June, the young chef hung a big wooden “Forge” sign on the front of a 2,500-square-foot former Tribeca dairy warehouse, located at 134 Reade Street, where he’s been serving up suckling pig and honey-glazed duck breast ever since.
Come Feb. 1, however, the sign must come down. Menus, business cards, even the eatery’s Web site (www.forgenyc.com) are also headed for the dust bin of local culinary history.
Heck, friends of the chef may have to come up with an entirely new nickname for the guy.
“It’s not because we’re in trouble that we’re changing the name,” said Forge—er, Mr. Forgione—who, ever mindful of New Yorkers’ uncanny ability to sniff out any sign of weakness at their local eateries, was emphatic about making that point. “We’re not changing the concept. We’re not changing the chef. We’re not trying to attract attention. It’s all because we have to.”
This past September, Mr. Forgione and managing partner Christopher Blumlo were served with a thick stack of legal papers—“It literally looked like a phonebook!” the chef said—charging the pair with six counts of trademark infringement, “cybersquatting” and other unfair business practices.
Rival restaurateur Shareef Malnik, operator of the opulent Miami Beach eatery the Forge (home of the famous “Super Steak”), was suing in U.S. District Court to stop the New York chef from commercializing his own nickname.
“If my nickname was McDonald’s, I can’t just open a McDonald’s,” said Mr. Malnik, who registered a federal trademark on the term “forge” for restaurant purposes back in 1996. “It may or may not be his nickname. I don’t really care. You can’t open a restaurant on somebody else’s coattails. It’s just not legal.”
Restaurateurs are notoriously litigious about naming rights. Prominent chefs Wolfgang Puck and Wolfgang Zwiener slugged it out for months over the opening of Wolfgang’s Steakhouse in Beverly Hills. Patsy’s Italian Restaurant in midtown Manhattan has battled Patsy’s Pizzeria in Harlem for years. Never mind state lines: Angry operators have been known to lob legal assaults even over international borders. The original Bukhara restaurant in New Dehli, India, took Manhattan’s Bukhara Grill to court back in 2003. Just last month, the Hotel Cipriani in Venice sued the famed Cipriani restaurant in London.
“If you build something and it has a great image, it becomes very valuable,” Mr. Malnik said. “Another restaurant with the same name and a poor review is going to tarnish my image, and I can’t have that. … People are going to go there thinking that it’s my restaurant!”
MR. FORGIONE’S PARTNER, Mr. Blumlo, 32, a former Aramark executive in charge of food service at Shea Stadium and the new Citifield, would beg to differ: “If you look at the two restaurants, they couldn’t be more different.”
Mr. Malnik’s 20,000-square-foot Miami eatery has bow-tied waiters shuffling through five dining rooms outfitted with crystal chandeliers, Tiffany-style stained glass and an elliptical domed ceiling. Mr. Forgione and Mr. Blumlo’s much smaller and far more rustic-looking Tribeca restaurant, with its exposed brick walls and dark wooden paneling, is a lot more laid back.
Mr. Malnik’s case was largely predicated on a pile of press describing his restaurant’s long history of catering to the rich and famous: Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson and Richard Nixon, to name-drop a few. “We submitted, I think, 400 pages of documents and we could get more,” Mr. Malnik said. “I’m sure there are some people, but I would exaggerate to say that there isn’t a person in New York who doesn’t know the Forge.”
Talk about street cred: The New York Times in 2000 described the restaurant as “sort of like Sparks Steak House South,” in reference to “the New York mob landmark” where Gambino boss Paul Castellano was killed in 1986. The article noted that Mr. Malnik’s father, Al Malnik, the restaurant’s prior owner, was also the lawyer for the late mobster Meyer Lansky.
“If one didn’t know that we existed and that I had this trademark, then they would have to be somewhat naïve,” Mr. Malnik told The Observer. “You can’t help but bump into our name anytime you search ‘Forge.’”
Mr. Forgione admitted that he was aware of the Florida eatery prior to opening his own place in New York. “I Googled ‘Forge’ three years ago,” he said. “But I never in a million years thought that a restaurant in Miami would give a shit.”
To the contrary. “Miami Beach is not some hick town where only the people in the neighborhood would go there,” Mr. Malnik said. “It’s very New York–oriented.”
Mr. Malnik has plans to open his own Manhattan outpost of the hallowed Miami brand someday (“I would love to be in Soho,” he said, citing an upcoming February trip to look at four spaces, including two spots south of Houston Street), and, in his words, “I’m not going to go to New York with another Forge there.”
The New York partners initially hoped to resolve the conflict with a few simple edits. “Our first offer was to add his full name after it—Forge by Marc Forgione,” Mr. Blumlo said.
But Mr. Malnik wouldn’t back down. “I was ready to litigate it all the way,” the Miami food mogul said.
“If we had maybe a couple of years more under our belt,” Mr. Blumlo said, “some money to kind of burn, and we wanted to go at ’em and fight ’em with our attorney, we probably could’ve ended up just with ‘Forge’ and not changed anything.”
But, at what cost? “Our attorneys originally said you could push well over $100,000 easy if you fight all these charges,” he said.
“I feel like I’m a fucking little kid getting beat up in the schoolyard and I can’t punch back,” Mr. Forgione added.
On Dec. 18, the two sides reached a settlement, with Mr. Forgione and Mr. Blumlo formally agreeing, however reluctantly, to take down the Forge sign and forgo “any mark that includes a term that looks or sounds like ‘Forge.’”
“We’re just going to go with Marc Forgione,” the chef said of the eatery’s new name. “Until I get sued by another Marc Forgione.”