Growing up, chef Sara Jenkins spent summers in Tuscany, where she made her first batch of homemade fresh pasta. She went on to open the pasta-centric restaurant Porsena in New York City and to co-write a cookbook with her mother, The Four Seasons of Pasta, out this fall. Jenkins talked to us about her trips to Italy, where she gathers inspiration.
My parents bought a farmhouse in Tuscany in 1971. It was an abandoned shell with no electricity and no running water. Over the years, they slowly restored it and we began spending summers there. Then eventually my dad, a foreign correspondent, got his dream post in Rome and we moved to Italy full time.
Now I live and work in New York, but I go back to Italy whenever I can. Our house in Tuscany truly feels like my home, and I’m never so happy as when I arrive there. The house is behind this very famous hill town called Cortona, and there’s always a moment at the beginning of every trip when I’m climbing up the hill in a little Italian car and suddenly the quality of the air changes and there’s a sudden familiar sweetness to it all. That’s when I have to stop and just think, “I am so happy right now.”
I even cook differently when I’m in Italy. All of the ingredients are so good, even the produce you buy in the supermarket. Plus, it’s just a different way of life there —it’s much slower. Coming from New York City, I always have to have a moment of mental transition when I enter Italy. I’ll be standing in line for coffee or to buy a train ticket and it will be taking so long I just think, “Come ON people, let’s move!” That’s when I have to remind myself to take a deep breath and readjust. It may be a cliché, but I think it’s true that Italians are just a lot more focused on living in the moment and enjoying life.
I’ve spent so much time in Italy but, still, it’s almost impossible not to discover something new when I’m there. Last time I went I ate an asparagus and ricotta ravioli with lemon butter and, when I came back, I added it to my menu immediately—It was that good.
I decided to write a whole book about pasta, and to organize it by season, because that’s just the way I cook. First of all, I always have pasta in my house. I have a desert island thing about pasta and garlic and canned tomatoes: If you have those three things in the house, along with some good olive oil, you can come home after a long flight and make yourself a great meal. Or, on any given weekday, you can sauté some seasonal greens in a pan, throw in some pasta, and create something really great and faster than take-out.
There is this weird American idea that fresh pasta is better than dried pasta, but that’s not true. In Italy, fresh pasta is the pasta of the north and dried pasta is the pasta of the south. They’re both good. Of course, if you live in Bologna where pasta-making is a tradition, you stroll down to your local shop and pick up a kilo of exquisitely made tortellini, because that’s just what is done. If you live somewhere else, you have access to good artisanal dried pasta. I love to make fresh pasta, and I’m proud of it, but I also know that great dried pasta is a triumph too. The secret is to keep it simple and seasonal—and al dente, of course.