Last week, Porsena, a beloved East Village restaurant, closed, owing to the coronavirus. Its future is uncertain.Photograph by Mylène Fernandes

Sara Jenkins, who has lived in Italy sporadically for much of her life, opened her pasta-focussed restaurant Porsena, on East Seventh Street, near Cooper Union and McSorley’s, in 2010. A couple years later, she expanded it into the cozy and narrow storefront next door, creating Porsena Extra Bar. Jenkins has described herself as a home cook who became a chef, and her restaurant, for many in the neighborhood, has felt like home, if home had a world-class chef. (Mine does not.) Even the two beloved standbys on the menu—wilted-escarole salad with hot anchovy dressing, and anneloni with spicy lamb sausage and mustard greens—are startling in their savory, exacting deliciousness. The bread comes with a ramekin of olive oil from Jenkins’s family’s farm, in Tuscany. I live near Porsena, and am as much of a regular as I can afford to be. It’s irresistibly haimish, with exposed-brick walls and, behind the oak-and-tile bar, an eighteenth-century map of Rome. Everybody knows everybody, by sight or by name—diners, waiters, staff. Several regulars attend the Monday-night movie screenings at the Extra Bar: “La Dolce Vita” with your risotto. Last year, a Porsena regular—a tiny, feisty longtime East Villager with a squeaky voice and an ebullient spirit—died, and Porsena held her memorial, abundant with tributes and pasta.

Last week, Porsena’s chairs and barstools were up. One rainy night, in the back of the restaurant, two employees were working: Ian MacRae, the manager, and Dave Pizarro, the cook. MacRae, a strapping, bespectacled Scot with a soft accent, moved to New York fifteen years ago and has been an actor and restaurant worker ever since. He wore a black sweater, black pants, and vintage-style black-and-white Adidas sneakers. MacRae has a gracious presence, as does the assistant manager, Christina Van Der Merwe, as do the other staffers—just the right level of warm attentiveness—and, in normal times, the whole mood is made for dining in. Takeout and delivery are not Porsena’s focus. “Our delivery menu has always been dishes that we can prepare anytime,” MacRae said: cacio e pepe, spaghetti al limone, the beloved anneloni. It happens to suit the pandemic era.

As orders came in, MacRae gave them to Pizarro, in the open kitchen. Pizarro had a broken wrist—scooter, bike lane, drunk pedestrian—and was chopping garlic and boiling pasta in gloves and a cast. He’s a backup; the head chef, Alfredo Medel, had a cough and was exercising caution. MacRae donned gloves, boxed and bagged each meal, and left completed orders on a table up front for delivery workers to pick up. (“Hello, sir! Are you here for Jennifer?”) Between orders, he sat at a big, rough-hewn family-style table by the kitchen, which, last time I’d dined in, during early social distancing, had been occupied by a boisterous younger group celebrating a birthday. (They weren’t being Porsena-courteous, and had failed to notice my stern looks from the bar.) This table was also where, before each night’s opening, the staff would have dinner together. I’d sometimes look in while walking by, see them there, and feel a little tug of fondness. Now it was just MacRae, a laptop, Clorox wipes, rubbing alcohol, a mask, a bottle of Italian sparkling water, and, just arrived in the day’s mail, a box of ballpoint pens that said “Porsena.”

In early and mid-March, Porsena had tried cautious, socially distant in-room dining, served with small-batch hand sanitizer that Van Der Merwe made. A day before the city limited restaurants to takeout and delivery, owing to the coronavirus, Porsena had closed for eat-in service. “Sara said, ‘It’s not worth risking people’s health,’ ” MacRae told me. (In an e-mail to the restaurant’s mailing list, Jenkins, who now lives in Maine, wrote, “As we say in Italy, ‘in bocca al lupo,’ which literally means in the mouth of the wolf but figuratively means good luck! We will all need it.”) But the takeout and delivery, marginally profitable even in normal times (the Seamless-GrubHub model is “pretty usurious,” Jenkins said), wouldn’t be enough to sustain the business. “We’ve tried not to spend money this week,” MacRae said. He paused. “I don’t know what we’re going to do.” His expression had the stunned look of many people I’ve seen these past few weeks, on TV and in the park.

Porsena had recently laid off its entire staff, except for MacRae and the cooks. MacRae set up a GoFundMe campaign for the workers, which has raised more than fifteen thousand dollars. “That’s just from people on our mailing list,” he said. (Jenkins “was quite touched” by the response, she said.) Other restaurants were doing the same—Il Buco, for example, on Bond Street. MacRae talked about other local restaurants and restaurant groups, some of which owned the building in which they’re housed and therefore might be O.K., some of which had already closed for good. “I think, ultimately, if we close now”—for real—“I think we will be able to reopen,” MacRae said. “I think.”

Two more orders came in. “Roasted Brussels sprouts, polenta, bruschetta, pasta pomodoro, chocolate cake—the torta,” MacRae said. He got polenta out of a low fridge and wine out of a hidden pantry and then sat back down. “I go home at night and watch all the coronavirus stuff—Cuomo, Boris Johnson—and then I need something funny,” MacRae said. “I just showed Dave a video I watched last night.” He slid his laptop toward me and I watched a clip from “Only Fools and Horses,” an eighties British sitcom about two East Enders in loud suits. They were at a pub, eying ladies. “Play it nice and cool, son, nice and cool,” one said, and then had a pratfall. “This is nostalgic for me, because it’s something my dad laughed at,” MacRae said.

Porsena’s door opened, and a tall man in glasses came in, smiling, to pick up takeout. “For Andrew,” he said.

“Are you Scottish?“ McRae asked.

“I’ve been here thirty years,” Andrew said. “Most people don’t notice my accent. I’m from Stirling.”

“I’m from Aberdeen,” MacRae said. “You call us sheep shaggers!”

Andrew, a recently laid-off veterinarian, laughed. He seemed unlikely to call people sheep shaggers. MacRae wiped down a pen with bleach and handed him the pen and receipt. “I think you’ve undercharged me,” Andrew said. “At this point, we all have to look after each other.” Later, another takeout customer: Frank, a three-times-a-week regular and former banker. He wore an overcoat and a plaid scarf. “The National Guard is coming,” he said. “I just saw them in the streets—they’re going to put in beds at the Javits Center.” Signing his receipt, he said, “The tips are all going to Miguel and those guys, right?” They were.

When the dinner rush, such as it was, died down, Pizarro came out to chat. MacRae said, “Yesterday we took food up to a doctor—Dave’s friend who works in the E.R. at Bellevue.” She’s another Porsena regular. “This past week, she was training younger doctors in hygiene protocols,” Pizarro said. “Biohazard stuff, masks, gloves, scrubs, shoe covers. The wash in, the wash out. She texted my girlfriend last night: ‘It was a really rough day for my team.’ ”

MacRae went into the kitchen, stood in front of the sink, and rolled up his sleeves. “I thought my pot-washing days were over,” he said, smiling. I poked my head into the little passageway that connects the dining room to the Extra Bar; Van Der Merwe had set up a little gallery in there, the conceit being to show one work by one artist at a time. It was empty. “She had a fabulous screen print on display—it took up the whole wall!” MacRae said. “But it didn’t stick, and then a global pandemic happened.”

The next day, Porsena closed. The future there, as everywhere, is yet to be understood. Meanwhile, MacRae had hopes of flying to Scotland, to help his mother, once it was safe. (He has decided, for the time being, to stay put.) He wrote his phone number for me on a card that Jenkins had had printed, from a tidy stack at the host station. The card was decorated with a border of vine-ripened tomatoes and advertised a yearlong tenth-anniversary celebration. At the top, it says, in neat italics, “We have many fun events planned.”



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