Writing for the Atlantic in 2010, Sara Jenkins expressed doubts before opening Porsena (21 East 7th Street, 212-228-4923), her first sit-down restaurant. Two years prior, she and her cousin had brought Porchetta, a six-seat ode to the crisp-skinned Italian pork roast, to the East Village. But this new venture a few blocks up 7th Street would be the culmination of a career spent cooking and living throughout Italy and the United States. “I wake up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat and fret about what will happen if nobody comes,” she confessed at the time.
A half-decade later, I bet her brow is desert dry. Jenkins has become something of a gluten ambassador, constantly exploring and expanding upon the traditional pasta canon while furthering her role as a champion of simple, rustic Italian cooking. Three years ago she opened an annex to Porsena outfitted with a long oak-and-faux-tile bar, where walk-ins spill over from the subdued main dining room to mingle with folks who are just looking for a glass of wine and a snack. Most recently, she co-authored a book about pasta with her mother, prolific food writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins.
Porsena’s menu yields seasonal treasures. Paunchy, crimped chestnut agnolotti bathe in sage-spiked brown butter. A creamy risotto takes on a tint of sunset pink courtesy of cooked apples and red cabbage, the grains of carnaroli rice — stickier than the more commonly used arborio — clinging together with melted leeks and pecorino: It’s a fruit-and-cheese combo as self-evidently successful as a cheddar-crusted apple pie. (A few weeks later, pumpkin flavored the velvety amber rice.) Jenkins rocked the city five years ago with her extraordinary lasagna, its domed cap of broiled cheese hiding paper-thin pasta sheets within a terra-cotta baking dish. When it’s available, it remains one of the best in town.
She exalts leafy greens to intoxicating effect, tossing thin, hollow bucatini — sturdy, spaghetti-like strands that are most famously covered in guanciale-larded amatriciana sauce — with a peppery, garlic-zapped chicory purée, showering the bowl with toasted breadcrumbs for a light crunch. On a recent evening, the massive shells called lumaconi arrived in a jumble with Tuscan kale, garlicky pork sausage, and toothsome cranberry beans. By the next night Jenkins had ditched the legumes and ground meat, instead smothering the hefty noodles in earthy kale pesto studded with prosciutto shavings. A glug of vibrant olio nuovo — literally “new oil,” a fragrant, unfiltered first-press olive oil — lent the dish a verdant sheen and a grassy finish.
Familiar shapes like penne and spaghetti (the latter spot-on, inset with Manila clams and loads of caramelized garlic) share pantry space with funkier varieties, including ruffled swatches of sagne a pezzi, as well as anneloni, whose tubular rings soak up the gamy fat of spicy lamb sausage and the sharpness of wilted mustard greens.
The pastas, all priced at about $20, do a fine job sating hungry stomachs. The rest of Porsena’s menu contains gems aplenty, salads in particular: bright black-currant vinaigrette drizzled atop tender rabbit confit; raw root vegetables teased with fluffy, shaved horseradish; a brilliant mix of wilted escarole and chile-pepper croutons in spicy anchovy dressing. If you manage not to fill up on pasta, you’ll be met with a quartet of simply prepared main courses, the best of which is a hulking Hampshire pork chop seasoned with fennel pollen in porchetta-like fashion. All of it hits straight to the gut in a relentlessly satisfying way.
While she was understandably nervous about taking the sit-down restaurant plunge, Jenkins’s cooking has always displayed a deliciously unselfconscious confidence, and it wasn’t long before she started looking for ways to channel her creativity. Ergo the annex, which once served its own Mediterranean menu (not to mention the occasional taco pop-up) but now stands on its own as a great place to dive into a wine list heavy on the affordable Italian table variety.
Returning from Italy two years ago, Jenkins began offering $40 (now $45) regional prix-fixe meals inspired by her travels. She and chef Sal Celona let loose for the weekly Tuesday specials, which might include traditionalist dishes like rabbit braised with its liver or prehistoric-looking periwinkles cooked in white wine loaded with fennel and garlic. The kitchen even detoured to France this past summer, sautéing chanterelles with melting foie gras and pitting roast pork loin against cabbage and jammy prunes to honor the Loire Valley.
Desserts, defiantly, haven’t changed much at all. There are sturdy pucks of chocolate-walnut torte; there’s a mousse-like panna cotta stuck with jagged chocolate shards. Meanwhile, Jenkins’s moist and airy olive oil cake is as reliable as it was during opening week. So is Porsena.