21 East 7th Street, New York NY 10003 (between 2nd and 3rd Ave; map); 212-228-4923
Veggie Options: 2 salads/appetizers (avoid the escarole salad, it has anchovies in the dressing), 3 pastas (roasted cauliflower pasta has anchovies, but you can request it without)
Cost: Vegetarian appetizers $8-9, pastas $14-17
Sara Jenkins is best known for her massively popular East Village pork-fest, Porchetta; but growing up in Rome and Tuscany, pasta was one of her first loves.
So when we heard that she was opening Porsena, a restaurant focused on pastas, we jumped at the chance to see what she can offer to those of the meatless persuasion.
What we found there was a very solid neighborhood Italian restaurant, elevated by the fine attention to detail of a seasoned chef.
The green bean and fennel salad ($8) is a simple, elegant appetizer built for crunch. Vibrant green beans, fresh fennel, thin slivers of celery, and pickled red onion all pair perfectly against the barely charred toasted almonds that are sprinkled throughout. Each bite has a delightful lemony finish from the simple lemon juice, vinegar, and olive oil* vinaigrette. This beautifully executed salad was the surprise hit of the meal.
*The chef is apparently so particular about her olive oils that the one used to dress this salad was hand-carried from Italy by a friend of hers. It's not the same oil served with the bread basket, but that's fine with us, so long as she makes it last for that amazing salad!
Of course, what we really came here for were the pastas. The classic pasta al pomodoro ($14) comes in a mellow and delicate tomato sauce with thin shreds of basil. By most American standards the pasta itself is on the al dente side, which may appeal to some more than others. And while the dish wasn't heaped with cheese, we were quite pleasantly surprised by the presence of parmesan in every bite. Overall, it may not pack a punch, but the flavors are remarkably well balanced.
A note on the bread: it is crucial to keep it on hand to swab up any extra sauce that will be left on the bottom of your plate. Luckily the waiters know this, and make no attempt to pry the bread plate from your greedy hands before the pastas are served—even if there is only enough sauce left for one or two swabbings.
The little twists with many cheeses ($17) has a softer bite than the pomodoro and is made of delightful curls, with a few unwinding like broken springs. The shape allows plenty of surface area for the cheesy sauce to cling to. Reminiscent of a sophisticated alfredo, the selection of cheeses changes daily (we had a mixture of goat's milk blue cheese, sheep's milk pecorino, and taleggio). The little twists are so gosh-darned fun to eat that they may have become my new favorite pasta shape.
Should your stomach not be too pasta-laden by the end of the meal, the panna cotta ($7) is a nice light note to end on (but take heed that it does contain gelatin and therefore isn't strictly vegetarian). The texture is so light that it risks being mistaken for mousse, and specks of vanilla bean dot the bottom of the dish. It comes with a dark chocolate pistachio bark and a tiny drizzle of what appears to be olive oil--until you taste it. The French pistachio oil is so pistacho-y, it may actually outshine the nut itself.
Overall, Porsena is not quite a show-stopper—but then, you get the feeling that it wasn't meant to be. It's a small, welcoming place based on the comfort food of the chef's childhood, where the menu doesn't change, the prices are reasonable, and the food is made with great care. And even though vegetarians miss out entirely on the "Secondi" course, the words "Pasta Restaurant" printed at the top of the menu serve as a friendly reminder that, at least this time, the meat-abstinent can get in on the main attraction.