This post is the first in a series in which Sara Jenkins, co-owner of New York City's Porchetta, will chronicle the process of opening a new restaurant, Porsena. To try Sara's recipe for pasta aglio e olio, with garlic and oil, click here.
After 17 years cooking professionally and 11 as a chef in New York City, I am finally opening my own proper restaurant. A couple of years ago, I opened a sandwich shop that's been very successful called Porchetta, where we make porchetta, that ubiquitous Central Italian roadside stand dish of highly seasoned roast pork traditionally cooked in a wood oven. I thought I had put the restaurant lust to bed with that, but apparently not. Here I am two years later gearing up to open Porsena, which I hope will be a simple little trattoria with a focus on pasta, specifically pasta'asciutta or dried pasta.
I am a reasonably well-known chef in New York but my no means am I a brand name with a lot of money and PR behind me. I think the restaurant is a good idea, and if I keep my price point low—easy to do with pasta, less so with my penchant for quality ingredients—I think it can be successful. But you never know, and I am of course nervous. I wake up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat and fret about what will happen if nobody comes. New York is a big city and there are a lot of high-profile chefs with high-profile projects opening this fall. Plus everyone now cooks Italian. Even the guys who spent years slaving at the altar of French cuisine all woke up one day and remembered that their grandmothers were Italian.
I feel that, as restaurant themes go, everyone is still caught up in replicating Italy, which is kind of pointless and doomed to always be Disneyesque. I just want to reference it. I want to take what I remember fondly from a childhood spent in Rome and Tuscany and build on it. I loved the simple trattorias of my childhood, the plain dining rooms with a husband or wife in the dining room and the other partner in the kitchen. If the kids were old enough they worked alongside their parents. Food was basic, seasonal but also timeless. Pasta with tomato sauce or meat ragu was always on the menu. Mixed greens, roast potatoes, or beans as a side dish. Some simple meat dishes. In Rome, a couple of fish dishes or steamed mussels. You went to the restaurant anticipating what you were going eat. If it's early summer, I am going to have sautéed peas with pancetta and wild mint. If it's late summer, I am going to have a plate of roasted peppers. But some things never changed. The basics. That's what I want to build my menu around. I want you as a customer to come in knowing more or less what you are going to eat. Maybe a seasonal special will pique your interest, but I want you to come knowing whether you will eat pasta al pomodoro or pasta al ragu.
We are winding up construction and anxiously waiting to get in the kitchen and start playing around with our ingredients, deciding what goes on the menu and what doesn't. Since the focus is pasta, it seems the first step is deciding what kind of dried pasta to use. Somehow people have gotten confused and think fresh pasta is always best. It's not. Fresh pasta can be amazing, but for us growing up and for most Italians it was special-occasion food. Dried pasta was what you ate every day, sometimes twice a day. And artisanally produced dried pasta is infinitely better than poorly made gooey fresh pasta. Artisanal dried pasta is pasta made the "old-fashioned" way, made from carefully selected wheat and then extruded through bronze dies that give the pasta a rougher exterior texture, letting the sauce cling to the pasta better, and then dried slowly at low heat over 48 hours, which gives the pasta a better mouth feel and preserves the flavor of the wheat. Over the past 15 years more and more producers have started producing these quality pastas. And so we need to decide which brand are we going to use?
We hope to use a lot of it, so it has to be pasta that we can order relatively easily, and of course we want the price point to be good. I love Benedetto Cavalieri pasta from Puglia, but he is very hard to get wholesale so he's out. I used to love Latini pasta from Le Marche but they have had problems in recent years and people I respect seem down on the product. Still, we are going to try it, although I think it's really expensive. Over the past few years I have used Pasta Setaro from Torre Annunziata outside Naples. It's really good, but it too has gotten expensive. Rustichella D'Abruzzo has been selling artisanal pasta all over the states for over 15 years and it's a good product and readily available, so that's in the lineup. Recently in Canada I found a pasta called Di Martino from Gragnano, a town near Naples, famous for their pastificcios (dried pasta factories). I am very excited about the Di Martino pasta, as it's suitably unknown and the price point is really good.
Still, I am determined not to make up my mind until we do a serious tasting. Once we get the gas turned on and we can start cooking we are going to gather up these pastas and then blind taste them. We'll toss them with the simplest, most basic Italian sauce, aglio e olio, and then decide which one to use. Then we will taste them again with tomato sauce. The next step is deciding which canned tomatoes to use.
This is where the restaurant starts to get exciting and it's not just endless dull paperwork anymore. This is the part of creating a restaurant that makes my heart sing. It's the sweet spot before the insanity of opening the doors and inviting people in to judge us. It's the moment when everything lies open before us and anything is possible. In the next few weeks—if everything goes well—the permits will come in, the menu will be ironed out, the staff will be hired, and we will open the doors and start the next stage.