Chatting With Sara Jenkins: Porsena, Eataly, and the Simple Beauty of Pasta With Tomato Sauce


Widely celebrated for the black magic she works with boneless pork roast at Porchetta, Sara Jenkins currently has her hands full opening Porsena, her new pasta restaurant down the block from Porchetta on East 7th Street. Jenkins, who spent much of her childhood in Tuscany thanks to her father’s job as a foreign correspondent (her mother, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, is a renowned cookbook author), got her start cooking in New York at I Coppi and subsequently won a loyal following at 50 Carmine. Jenkins is hoping to open Porsena in October, and took a few minutes to speak with us about it, as well as her thoughts on Eataly, authenticity, and the eternal beauty of a simple plate of pasta with tomato sauce. Check back tomorrow for the second half of the interview.

How is Porsena doing this week?

It’s coming along. I’m in the permitting stage, which is kind of a nightmare. I’m getting my plumbing inspection done. All of the really fun stuff.

What’s the story behind the restaurant’s name?

Porsena was the name of an Etruscan king. There’s a poem about him from the 1860s [Thomas Babington Macaulay’s ‘Horatius‘]. His friend, Tarquin, gets kicked out of Rome, and Porsena organizes an army and they go down to fight the Romans. It’s very dramatic, and I loved the poem as a kid. We had a few other names for the restaurant. I thought of Termini, which is the name of the main station in Rome. But a bunch of friends were like, “That’s terrible, that’s awful.” The word has negative connotations for some people, like “terminal” or “terminate.” For them, it meant death and destruction.

Why did you want Porsena’s focus to be on pasta?

I did this pasta dinner at Txikito last year. It was really fun, and sold out, and I had a great time. I love pasta and think I do a good job at it. I used to joke years ago with Fred [Twomey, whose Veloce Pizzeria features Jenkins’ pies] that I was going to open a restaurant and serve nothing but pasta. So it’s something that’s been rolling around in my head.

Given that there are so many different kinds of pasta throughout Italy, how did you decide what to put on the menu?

I wanted stuff that was really solid on there. My family has a house in Tuscany near a town called Cortona. There’s a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that’s not really even that good — I would never tell someone, “You’re going to go there and have the most amazing meal.” You’re not. It’s simple and uncomplicated: Do you want pasta with tomato sauce or meat sauce? That’s your choice. I love that simplicity. As a kid growing up, there were these places that we went to — you used to find a lot more of them in Italy — you walked in with an idea of what you wanted, and so that’s what I wanted: a core menu of stuff that’s not fashionable at the moment but that, I want you to know that whether it’s January or June, you’ll get. I do play around with seasonal stuff because I love that, so there will be seasonal specials. But with the core menu, you can walk in and you’ll get pasta with meat sauce or tomato sauce.

Given the emphasis on seasonality, it seems increasingly rare to find restaurants that always keep certain dishes on the menu, regardless of the time of year.

I did that years ago, where I changed the menu everyday. It’s fun and exciting to do that as a cook, but in some ways there’s something to be said for doing the same thing well over and over. I remember we had a squid dish one night, and a guy ate it and came back and we didn’t have it. He was peeved. I was a lot younger and was like, whatever. But now I get his point. It’s understanding where in a menu specials belong. I did a red wine and spaghetti dish at 50 Carmine. Some people absolutely loved it, and some people absolutely hated it, my father included. He didn’t get it at all. So the staff had to be so well-trained to guide people away from it. I look back at it and I’m like, that’s kind of silly. That’s a pasta that belongs on a special, so some people can get excited, and some people not. Personally, I love pasta and tomato sauce. It’s the pillar of Italian cooking. If you can’t do that and can’t get that, then you don’t understand it.

Though some chefs are so eager to re-brand Italian food as this sexy, chic thing. And pasta with red sauce doesn’t fit with that image.

The big difference with French and Italian food is that you go to a French restaurant to be dazzled. If you live in Paris, you’re going out for a culinary experience you can’t replicate at home — and even if you could, why would you want to? In Italy, you want to go to a restaurant and eat the pasta there. The best restaurant is the one that makes pasta that tastes like what your mom cooked at home. You’re not eating for a culinary experience. Which isn’t to say there aren’t a lot of fireworks all over Italian cuisine today. When I go back to Italy, I’m less and less interested in the culinary pyrotechnics and more interested in the little hole-in-the-wall where you’re asked if you want pasta with tomato or meat sauce.

A few months ago, Tony May of SD26 called Italian food the world’s most misunderstood cuisine, and said that most restaurant critics don’t know anything about it and thus aren’t really qualified to criticize it. What’s your view on the matter?

I just can’t get that grumpy. [Laughs.] There are times when I feel like maybe somebody hasn’t understood what I’m trying to do, but I don’t know, what I kind of object to is people trying to replicate Italy. Or Hanoi, for that matter. We’re not in Italy, we’re not in Hanoi — we’re in New York. That’s the beauty of it. I remember, years ago, hearing about someone making traditional aceto balsamico in California. You can’t do that. You can make something close to it and use it as an inspiration, but you can’t make it. I want to reference all of the things I love and get excited by. At this point, Italian food is so popular and successful here that I think most people can get it. And after all, everyone has the right to criticize.

Have you been to Eataly?

No, and I was going to go this afternoon, but didn’t have time. I’m dying to go, I’m really super excited.

Have you been to the original in Torino?

No, I haven’t. Bologna is as far north as I ever make it. The one thing I’m really excited about over there [at the 23rd Street Eataly] is the well-made fresh pasta that you can buy. I have a memory as a kid of shops that specialized in just pasta and eggs. There was a shop that had an antique kind of machine in the window that spit out tortellini. So much of the fresh pasta we buy here is generally bad.

Is there anyplace else you’ll go for fresh pasta here?

I go to Raffetto’s when I need good, fresh pasta, but even that, I don’t know. I mean, what’s in that meat filling anyway?