Before top toques such as Marco Canora and David Chang opened up shop there, the East Village was best known for its abundance of cheap, cheerful and reliable trattorias. While the head chefs in those places---still a staple of the area---tend to toil away unsung in their kitchens, at recent addition Porsena, the chef is the draw.
Sara Jenkins, who runs the kitchen here, has built a career on modest ambitions---getting the little things right at 50 Carmine in the West Village and Porchetta in the East. Like Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune, she's developed a serious following while keeping her head down. And though her cozy new pasta joint is more stylish than most of its type---with potted herbs and particleboard tables under an arched cellar ceiling---the restaurant is still as humble and gracious as its local forebears.
Like visiting a solicitous neighbor whose kitchen is always stocked with good things to eat, it's easy for a visitor to imagine Jenkins happily tending the range here, glass of red wine in one hand, saut pan in the other. She douses great fistfuls of peppery escarole in a gutsy dressing of browned garlic, anchovies and olive oil, and grabs crusty crostini drenched in fresh mozzarella from under the broiler, a grilled cheese turned primal with confetti shavings of briny bottarga.
The best of her pastas are spontaneous and comforting. Toothsome anneloni rings tossed in a generous jumble of wilted mustard greens and house-made spicy lamb sausage, piquant with Calabrese peppers, are finished with a touch of cream and crisp toasted bread crumbs. Her kitchen-sink mac and cheese, perfumed with fennel pollen and thyme, is a soothing dish, its cannolichie curls gooey with sharp and pungent scraps from the restaurant's cheese plate (a mix of fontina, ragusano and piave, among others).
Only the lasagna al forno, baked to order in individual crocks, fails to reach its potential---rich and creamy, but bland and mushy, too. The short list of main-course proteins, meanwhile, reads like an addendum. Pasta is really the best thing on the constantly changing menu, but if you're craving wholesome fish or fowl, you could do worse than Jenkins's juicy roasted chicken, simply served with mashed potatoes and bitter greens, or her spare, meaty parchment-wrapped hake, steam-cooked with potatoes, carrots and lemony celery.
Desserts, including a dense chocolate cake filled with high-end French walnuts, are homey enough to keep a smile on your face. Which is, in the end, what Porsena is all about. Star-chef stalkers may yearn for more, but regulars now have a dependable canteen that any 'hood would be lucky to call its own.
Eat this: Escarole salad with anchovy dressing, mozzarella and bottarga crostini, anneloni with lamb sausage, cannolichie with many cheeses, chocolate cake
Drink this: The selection of reasonably priced, food-friendly Italian wines includes a beautiful, versatile vernaccia nera ($38), a light, earthy red from the Marche region.
Sit here: While the ascetic, cozy dining room has a great welcoming quality, dining at the bar is the best way to make yourself known as a drop-in regular.
Conversation piece: Sara Jenkins, who spent a chunk of her childhood in Rome and Tuscany (her father was a foreign correspondent), named her new restaurant after an Etruscan king who waged war against Rome.
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