Chef on the Grill: Sara Jenkins

Photo: Danny Kim/New York Magazine

H aving circulated through many Italian kitchens in Boston and New York, from Figs to 50 Carmine, Sara Jenkins had her biggest hit at Porchetta, the sandwich shop she’s thinking of cloning in Williamsburg or the Upper West Side. Before that, though, she’s returning to a full-fledged restaurant kitchen—as chef-owner, for the very first time. Porsena (21–23 E. 7th St., nr. Third Ave.; 212-228-4923), a name that alludes to her childhood residence in Rome and Tuscany, opens on December 2, with a focus on the food Jenkins is most closely associated with, after fennel-pollen-seasoned roast pork: pasta. She’ll also serve appetizers and entrées, of course, plus her excellent panna cotta, and (as soon as the license arrives) quaffable indigenous varieties Jenkins calls “picnic-table wines.” Here, she shares her thoughts on Italian food in New York, Italian food in Italy, and why ordering spaghetti with tomato sauce is nothing to be ashamed of.

Why is Italian food so popular?
Because it’s the best! French food was considered the apex of culture in a way, and the French still think that. It’s kind of like the French thinking black truffles are better than white truffles, and I was always, like, “Good, more white truffles for us!”’

What’s your earliest pasta memory?
Pasta carbonara. When we first moved to Rome, that was the thing that my brother and I always ate, probably because it was creamy and cheesy and salty. When I went to college,I used to make it with Cheddar cheese and bacon. I do like sautéed onions in my carbonara, and that’s considered controversial.

Should someone be embarrassed to order spaghetti with tomato sauce? Are you?
It used to amaze me that people would order pasta with tomato sauce and a salad in a restaurant. I never wanted to put it on my menu—it seemed to take up too much space. But if you can’t make it, then you don’t understand anything about Italian food, because it is the basis of Italian food. I love it, and it’s what I eat at home. I ate at El Bulli once, and I had to get this guy to get me the reservation, and I had lunch with him afterward. He had something so interesting to say: “It’s amazing food, but I never crave it.” I like to make food that you crave.

Do you consider your cooking authentic?
It’s not important to me anymore to cook authentic Tuscan food or authentic Roman food. There are things that ring true to me about Italian food, like the way you sauce the pasta and not overcooking it, and the use of olive oil.

What’s the single most important thing about pasta cookery?
Don’t use too much sauce. If there’s more sauce at the bottom of the bowl than can be swabbed with one or two passes with a piece of bread when you’re done, that’s too much.

And where do you stand on the al dente continuum? Should you see the white uncooked flour in the middle?
I don’t think so. I think it should be just past that point.

Is there anything better about Italian food here than in Italy?
We’ve become so attuned to ingredients. Tomatoes picked on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius are really good, but the variety we get at Union Square Greenmarket in the summer is amazing.

Should pasta ever be the main course, or always just the primi?
In a restaurant setting, pasta should be a middle course and priced accordingly. But then people order that as their entrée and all of a sudden your check average is nothing and you can’t pay the rent. I’ve struggled with this. I’m not going to have half-orders on the menu, but they’re available. I eat pasta and a salad for dinner all the time.

But since you’re branding Porsena as a “pasta restaurant,” aren’t people going to come specifically for that?
Right. And that’s okay with me—especially if they don’t order a half-portion.

Chef on the Grill: Sara Jenkins