The red-accented room at Porsena was only half-full on a Thursday night at 8. For all the pre-opening hype porchetta queen Sara Jenkins’s new restaurant got, the place has seemed surprisingly un-mobbed. Maybe it’s its location on a rather un-trodden stretch of 7th Street (it’s certainly not getting pour-over traffic from neighbor McSorley’s) or maybe it’s just too easy to get into for this city’s punishment-craving dining elite (it takes reservations: gasp!). In any case, all the better for us because the food is spot-on and too un-fussy to be swarmed by foodspotters. Besides, we wanted to take our grandma there and she only eats two things in Italian restaurants: lasagna and pork.
Before we get to the pasta, the apps. Grandma in tow, the supple-looking poached octopus was off-limits. And the aspic, while pork … well, forget it. But the crostino of bottarga di tonno ($8) was doable, mostly because it arrives looking like harmless ol’ cheese on toast. Little did she know it was sprinkled with salty tuna roe, giving it the kind of umami quality a dose of Worchestershire sauce can achieve, but more complex and brinier. Mussels in a saffron and white wine broth ($9) were aromatic and perfectly plump, the soupy leftovers worthy of an extra order of bread for sopping. A green bean salad, with fennel, celery, toasted almonds, and pickled red onions, had varying and pleasing degrees of crunch, with energizing notes of anise and vinegar.
But the pièces de resistances are undeniably the pastas. Anneloni with mustard greens and spicy lamb sausage ($16) is a flavor bomb, rich and peppery, with a lush, springy texture to the pasta. It makes the spaghetti with clams ($16) seem subtle, so manage your sharing accordingly. In fact, the latter is subtle: Sweet-briny in-shell Manila clams, tossed with garlic and parsley, have an almost citrusy zest. The presentation is nothing to crow about, but that’s not really the point here. The point is soul-soothing pasta, the kind you shut up and eat, leaving the conversation for afterward. That was Grandma’s strategy, anyway. So, you might be wondering: Did she opt for the baked lasagna, in its meat ragu with bechamel ($18)? Um, no. The lack of red sauce made it a no-go. But the Niman Ranch pork chop, with cannellini beans and a shaved red cabbage salad ($26), she says, was superb.
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