Despite all the hype, Porsena—from Sara Jenkins, of Italian pork palace Porchetta—is a rather unassuming restaurant. It's small and sparsely decorated, outfitted with whitewashed brick and slick red wood. I stepped in on one blustery winter evening to find one of the friendliest staffs I've encountered in a long time. We've all had to endure the occasional deathstare or eye-roll after uttering the words "I don't have reservations and, no, my entire party isn't here,"but if our hostess was annoyed with us, she certainly didn't show it, smiling warmly as she pointed us to the bar before going off to check on the status of our table. The bar at Porsena is not a bad place to be: friendly bartender, affordable assortment of carefully chosen Italian wines, excellent Italian and American craft beers.
After a few drinks, we were seated at the chef's table, either Siberia or the best seat in the house, depending on your point of view. It sits hidden away from the rest of the restaurant, tucked in a subway-tiled corner near the open kitchen where Ms. Jenkins was calmly directing the staff. Al dente is a kind of mantra here, and you better believe the kitchen adheres to it: every pasta dish has serious spring in its step, a toothy resistance that reminds you just how overcooked most pasta usually is.
The cooking here is almost always precise, yet I wonder if it lacks ambition. The orecchiette con salsiccia e rape was the only dish that wowed my party, a mix of ear-shaped pasta spiced up with crumbly lamb sausage and bitter mustard greens, a beautiful balance of bold flavors that lingered in my memory for days. Everything else was well-prepared and obviously made with fresh ingredients; still, each dish only made me yearn for the orecchiette. The spaghetti, served with a spry tomato sauce and fresh basil, is something I wish I had the talent to cook up for myself every day. The lasagna, baked with a creamy bechamel and meaty ragu in terra cotta dish, is satisfying and served piping hot. The Niman Ranch pork chop, perfectly seasoned but slightly overcooked, was served with a side of wonderfully salty cannellini beans. Yet I'm not sure I would come back again. It's not that the food wasn't good; it was. It's just that Jenkins might have hit the mark too well when she set out to make humble, uncomplicated Italian food.
Photos by Alex Solmssen