Sara Jenkins, well known in Manhattan for the sandwich shop Porchetta and the rustic Italian restaurant Porsena, is moving to Rockport to launch a Mediterranean restaurant in the space occupied previously by Salt Water Farm Café. She hopes to open the restaurant, to be named Nina June after a childhood nickname, in early June.

Jenkins has lived and cooked in New York City for 17 years. Her porchetta sandwich caused a sensation when her tiny East Village shop opened in 2008, winning the top spot on that year’s Time Out New York “100 Best Things We Ate” list. Porsena is a New York Times Critics’ Pick.

“Her approach to food is as authentically Italian as anyone’s has ever been,” said Mitchell Davis, vice president of the James Beard Foundation in New York and an occasional resident of Italy. Whatever she cooks “comes out with an Italian sensibility that is pure and simple and in some ways unadulterated but very soulful.”

MORE CREATIVE FREEDOM IN MAINE

She came by that approach honestly. Although Jenkins attended Gould Academy in Bethel, she had an international childhood, including many years in Italy. She is the daughter of foreign correspondent and food writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who lives in Camden and is well known for her cookbooks and other writings on Mediterranean food.

In New York, Sara Jenkins has been pegged as a rustic Italian cook. In Maine, she is looking forward to a little more creative freedom in the kitchen, a chance to roam more broadly around the Mediterranean region, Jenkins said in a telephone interview from New York. She listed the cuisines of Spain, Turkey and the Middle East as those she’s eager to explore more thoroughly.

“I’m almost scared of using the Mediterranean tag because it’s been so abused, but essentially to me it’s a cuisine of local ingredients, focused on seafood, vegetables, grains and greens, olive oil and a small amount of meat,” Jenkins said. “And that’s really what I like to cook. Kind of clean food that’s well sourced.”

Jenkins, who said she is on the verge of signing the lease, described the former Salt Water space as “turnkey.” It has room for about 50 diners inside and another 20 or so on the deck.

Salt Water Farm Café opened in the spring of 2013 in Rockport’s newly renovated Union Hall. Owned by Annemarie Ahearn, in tandem with her Salt Water Farm Cooking School in Lincolnville, it was a gorgeous rustic-chic spot – The Wall Street Journal described it as “Brooklyn-meets-Mayberry” – with glorious views of the water. After two years, the restaurant closed for the season – and apparently for good – in September.

“The cooking school was growing really quickly, and that’s sort of where my heart lies,” Ahearn said in explaining why she decided to close the restaurant. “I realized if I wanted it to continue to grow, that’s where I had to focus. Sara (Jenkins) has more than 10 years of cooking experience, and she seemed like a really good fit for the space and the town. I’m really excited for her, and I can’t wait to be a customer.”

LEAVING THE CITY, KEEPING RESTAURANTS

Jenkins gave two reasons for moving to Maine: “I have a kid (a 9-year-old son), and I’d like to raise him in Maine, and I’ve gotten really excited and jazzed by everything going on in Maine in the food scene in the past 10 years.”

She named Long Grain in Camden, the Palace Diner in Biddeford, the Slipway in Thomaston, Chase’s Daily in Belfast and Suzuki Sushi Bar in Rockland among the restaurants that make her eager to cook in a state once better known for fried clams, clam chowder and lobster rolls than for its varied, farm-to-table cuisine. “I happen to love fried clams, clam chowder and lobster rolls,” she noted.

Jenkins is not selling her Manhattan restaurants. She opened Porchetta with her cousin, who still manages it, and she described the Porsena kitchen as very solid. She expects to be traveling back and forth to some extent, but says she is ready to leave the city.

“There is a level of fetishization of food that seems to be going on (in New York), and I’m really over it,” she said. “I want to cook good food for people who appreciate it and not be stressed out about ‘Did I make it onto this list? Are enough people talking about me?’

“New York is just too difficult to live in at this point in my life,” she said. “Usually I shuffle between home and work, home and work, home and work. Ten years ago I would go out after work, but I have a kid. Many people ask me, ‘What I am going to do in the winter (in Maine)?’ I am going to read books. I never get to read books.”

GETTING READY FOR THE LAUNCH

She also hopes to have more time for writing. Jenkins has co-written two cookbooks (one, “The Four Seasons of Pasta,” with her mother) and wrote a series of columns for The Atlantic website.

Jenkins, who will commute to Maine in May and move here in June, said she is “plugging away” at hiring, local sourcing, developing the menu and figuring out prices for Nina June; she expects the most expensive entree to be $35.

The name Nina (pronounced NINE-a) June comes from a nickname her grandfather gave her as a baby. Jenkins was born on June 9, and he suggested she be named Nina June so she’d never forget her birthday. She was named Sara, but the nickname stuck.

Ideally, Jenkins would open Nina June, at least for breakfast, on her 51st birthday – a former Porsena sous chef will help with the launch – and be serving three meals a day through the summer by July 4.

Peggy Grodinsky can be contacted at 791-6453 or at:

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Twitter: pgrodinsky

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