Porsena: A Halfway Great Pasta Restaurant
Porsena, the second restaurant of Chef Sara Jenkins, best known for Porchetta, is a classic pasta-centric trattoria just off Cooper Square. It describes itself as “convivial” and reminiscent of “neighborhood dining rooms.” It’s gotten pretty rave reviews from NYMag, the New York Times, and food bloggers. However, when it comes down to it, Porsena really isn’t anything special on the New York dining scene. It’s hype is driven by the restaurant’s attachment to Jenkins, something of a cult figure amongst foodies, and by the current obsession with Italian comfort food consuming New York. Don’t get me wrong, Porsena is good. And so is Italian comfort food. But is all the hype elevating it to one of the better pasta spots in Manhattan warranted? No.
On 7th Street, near the Cooper Union, Porsena is small. A divided restaurant with a bar on one side of a dividing wall and a dining room on the other, the restaurant is angular and awkwardly-set up. Perhaps the strangest thing about Porsena though is that for a restaurant focused in neighborhood cooking and Italian comfort food, the restaurant itself isn’t particularly warm or welcoming. The warmest thing about it is the scarlet-hued walls, and other than a warm earth-tone color palette, the dining room is essentially unadorned. A few mismatched posters and photographs dot the walls, but they do not tell a cohesive story and instead seem haphazard. If Sara Jenkins’ point in decorating her restaurant simply is to simply keep things easy and focused on the food, that’s great. But it doesn’t mean the restaurant needs to look boring, chintzy, or unfinished. In terms of design, Porsena is unremarkable.
The food at Porsena is, surprise surprise, rustic Italian. Because Jenkins herself dubbed Porsena a ‘pasta restaurant,’ the menu is pasta-centric. However, as with any good Italian restaurant, there are several antipasti selections to kick off the meal. Particularly good is the baccala mantecato, a smoky and savory salt cod and potato spread served with crusty garlic toast. The dish is unusual and quirky, a surprising way to start dinner. Not so successful is the mozzarella crostini. Served as one immense slice of bread loaf, not only was the crostini clunky and difficult to eat but it was also topped with stringy and tough mozzarella. Not even the glorious layer of bottarga could save the crostini from itself.
The pastas are, admittedly, very good as pastas go. There are nine options, ranging from the classic pasta al ragu, maccheroncini with a deep meat ragu sauce to the more unusual penette con cavolfiore, cooked with roasted cauliflower, bread crumbs, olives and capers. The house risotto, a sweet corn variety recently, is texturally perfect and very creamy, yet it’s positively aching for more salt. The pasta special, involving a slow-cooked duck ragu on the night I stopped by, was cooked a perfect al dente and the ragu was packed with succulent duck meat, yet once again, the ragu was pining for more seasoning to really shine. While the pastas are hearty, satisfying, and served in pleasantly large portions for the price, the best thing I ate at Porsena was the lemon olive oil cake offered for dessert. The cake was moist and refreshing, and the generous dollop of lemon curd was just an explosion of fresh lemon flavor. Perfecto!
However, the food can’t save Porsena from itself, for the most irritating thing about this ‘neighborhood’ restaurant is the staff. The hostess is straight-up unorganized and incompetent. She loses track of parties and can’t manage turning tables. Even though our check was on the table, we were asked to please pay and leave because she was running behind and the next scheduled party had been waiting. Despite offering to buy us a glass of wine at the bar, this struck me as unacceptable. Further, our server was bizarre. Not only did he get preachy with me and my dining date about the ingredients in each pasta dish, but he also forgot that he had read us the specials and proceeded to launch into the whole spiel again; when I told him that we had already heard them, he stared me down like I was the rudest patron he’d ever had and said, “well fine.” Doesn’t seem very neighborly to me.
Porsena is a fine-enough option for East Village locals, but when it comes to good Italian food and good pasta, there are better options. Seek out: Apizz, Hearth, A Voce Columbus, Spasso, and even Osteria Morini.
Perfect For: wine dates, pasta fanatics, east village locals, dining at the bar