Chef Sara Jenkins has successfully pulled off a hat trick in the East Village. She runs three wildly popular restaurants, all located within just a few block radius Veloce, Porchetta, and Porsena, her newest, pasta-centric venture, which opened in November. Each of her eateries specializes in a different Italian staple pizza, roast suckling pig sandwiches, and noodles. The single concept focus has paid off for the chef: “It wasn’t a conscious decision to do these types of restaurants, but the advantage is that you can really concentrate on doing one thing well,” Jenkins says. Jenkins has three hit restaurants and is looking to open more Porchetta outposts around the city.
This from a woman who grew up in Tuscany, surrounded by farmers with no electricity and no running water. She may even write a memoir: “I would really like to write about my experience growing up in Tuscany next to these peasant farmers who went from having no electricity and running water to having all the conveniences of modern life in the space of about ten years,” Jenkins expalins, “I feel privileged to see a very old way of life at the very end of it, which I, of course, did not realize was about to change so drastically.” Other than her own, her favorite pork sandwich renditions include the banh mi at Banh Mi Saigon in Chinatown and a good Cubano.
With three restaurants in the East Village, you’re an important figure in the food scene there. Why did you first choose to open there?
My first job in New York was on Ninth Street, a little Tuscan restaurant called I Coppi. So I just landed in the East Village. I’ve always enjoyed being a part of the community.
Each of your restaurants specializes in a classic, Italian dish. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of running restaurants with such focused concepts?
The advantage is that you can really concentrate on doing one thing well, the disadvantage is that it’s limiting. But it really wasn’t a conscious decision to do these types of restaurants. With Porchetta, I wanted to do something that wouldn’t be so time-consuming because I had a one-year-old child at the time. I had always loved porchetta, the dish worked in the space that we found for a restaurant, and everything just came together. Veloce came about because [my business partner] Frederick Twomey really wanted to use the space for a pizzeria. And for Porsena, I wanted to focus on pasta because one, that’s something I’m known for, and two, it’s uncomplicated
If you had to pick one, what’s your favorite dish at Porsena?
That’s hard because I really like everything on the menu, but I probably like the escarole salad and the cauliflower pennette best.
Why did you decide to serve square pizza at Veloce?
Frederick Twomey really wanted to do square pizza and I thought it was a nice twist.
Any desire to open a Neapolitan-style pizzeria?
It’s been done to death at this point. I’m more interested in opening a Lebanese restaurant, but doing all that quick, take-away stuff with care and quality ingredients.
Other than porchetta, what’s your favorite pork sandwich?
It’s a hard choice, but I’d choose either a Cubano or a banh mi. There used to be an amazing Dominican place on 13th street with phenomenal Cubanos, but now I get them from the Barnyard Cheese Shop on Avenue C. And for banh mis, I usually go down to Chinatown. There’s that place on Grand Street, Banh Mi Saigon.
Which do you prefer, fresh pasta or dried pasta?
I think dry pasta is terribly underrated, so I’d say that. But beautiful, fresh pasta is a thing of joy when it’s done right.
There are so many other debates that arise when cooking pasta. For instance, do you add olive oil to the boiling water? Never. I think that’s a real Italian-American thing.
What were your favorite foods to eat growing up?
Grilled calves liver, escargot and pasta carbonara. I was such a picky eater, but I was exposed to these dishes because we lived all over Europe near the Mediterranean. I liked escargot because it’s loaded with garlic and butter. But I can’t explain why I liked liver, I just always have.
What neighborhood do you live in and what are some of your favorite haunts there?
I live in Williamsburg and I love La Superior, Fatty Cue and Diner. But it is really a bar neighborhood, and as I age I have less patience for dining out in Williamsburg.
You come from a very literary family, so any plans to write a memoir like so many chefs are doing these days?
I would really like to write about my experience growing up in Tuscany next to these peasant farmers who went from having no electricity and running water to having all the conveniences of modern life in the space of about ten years. I feel like I was privileged to see a very old way of life at the very end of it, which I of course did not realize was about to change so drastically.
Any plans to open another Porchetta? We heard there may be new locations on the Upper West Side or Williamsburg?
It’s all about identifying the funding.
Address: 110 East Seventh St, btwn. First & Avenue A
Address: 21 East Seventh St., btwn. Second & Third Aves.
Address: 103 First Ave., btwn. Sixth & Seventh Sts.