Sara Jenkins has created her own miniature Italian empire in the East Village. After opening her tiny, pork-heavy storefront Porchetta on East 7th St in 2008, the American-born, Italy-raised chef (her father is a foreign correspondent, her mother a cookbook author) expanded with pasta-centric Porsena on the same street. In addition to her kitchen skills, Jenkins is also whip-smart and highly opinionated—she takes to Twitter to share her feelings on everything from heirloom tomatoes to gay marriage, and her lays-it-bare column for The Atlantic is always a worthwhile read. We recently talked to Jenkins about authenticity in the kitchen, dealing with Yelpers and the new projects she has on her plate.

How did you end up in the kitchen? I moved to the States in 1981, when I was fifteen, and I'd been living in Italy for about seven years at that point. When I was growing up, my dad was a reporter for News Week and for the Washington Post, and that's kind of how we got to live all over the Mediterranean. I went to boarding school in Maine, and I did not recognize the food that was presented to me. I remember going down to Boston on a trip and going out to the North End, and I didn't recognize that as Italian food. I had to learn to cook. They didn't even sell olive oil in the supermarket then, of any kind or sort.

Are you totally self-taught? Yeah. [Laughs.] I went to art school, so.

How is the Italian food here different from the flavors you grew up with?
Well, when I first came here, what you were presented with as Italian food was middle-American food. There are certain changes that happened to that food when people came here from Italy, and I think a lot of it was that people were really poor and really didn't have access to meat very much at all, and meat was so abundant here. The biggest example: spaghetti and meatballs—I spent years saying, "Where does this come from?" Italian food, it goes on and on and on, from town to town and region to region, it's almost like you could never get tired of it.

When you're cooking, do you care about trendiness or playing in to whatever is popular at the moment?
No, no. People think Italian food is easy. When I first started working, Julia Child was quoted as saying, "Anybody can cook a plate of pasta, but it takes a fine chef to prepare French cuisine," or something to that effect. When I started out cooking, everybody elevated French food. And now modern Spanish food is sort of the pinnacle of achievement. And again, there's always been this interest in Italian food, and it's incredibly popular.

Now it's almost like there's this new backlash. We've gotten to a point where people understand Italian food better than they ever have here, but then you have people knocking it because it's too simple. It's not cooking. I don't actually agree with that. There's a lot of fundamental things to understand about Italian food. So many different regions, so many different varieties. I think I've kind of abandoned the concept of authenticity, because I guess ultimately I don't think you can make authentic Tuscan food anywhere other than Tuscany, if you are going to be really hyper-authentic about it. But I try to honor the foundations of the food.

So you've given up your quest to recreate the most authentic possible dishes? For instance, I put on this menu here: pasta and ragout, and pasta and tomato sauce. And I kind of did that because there's a place in my town in Tuscany, and it's a hole in the wall, and it's not even really that good, but it's fun. It is interesting to me because I made ragout with a lot less tomato in it, and one of my main things is, I don't oversauce the pasta. All my Italian regulars love the ragout, they think it's perfect and amazing. And then I've gotten a lot of Yelp! reviews, and they're like, oh my god, there should have been tomato sauce, there wasn't enough. The meat barely covered the pasta. So, on that level, I'm trying to be as authentic as I can be. But then, for instance, Italians don't really eat sweet corn and we are surrounded by sweet corn here, and I run pasta with sweet corn and arugula chopped into it. So that's totally inauthentic.

Let's talk about Yelp! for a second. What do you think about it? Do you pay attention? Do you care? Sometimes it's like being drawn to that car wreck, you almost have to. I think when Yelp! becomes really relevant or important, it's now when you're first opening. It used to be when you first open there might be a press release here or there. You might get something in a magazine or the New York Times. That would be where people were reading it and that would be their first impression of you, and you'd have a little time to get yourself ready for that.

I'm not one of those people who are like, "All Yelpers suck and they don't know what they're talking about." It's a valid democratic process. But it's a weird one, you know? And there is no filter there. You have no knowledge of the person who's writing it, whether they know anything. Sometimes I look at Yelp! reviews and it's like, "Well, that's not the way it's done" with a sort of utter certainty. And my whole thing is, Hmm, I have no certainty about how anything is done. I only have what I like and what I don't like. But I also think it's this young-person thing that's important and needs to be paid attention to. You can't just dismiss it. There's a lot of people out there who make decisions on where they go based on review boards like that.

What do you like to eat and what do you wish there was more of in New York? I love Asian food. I wish that there was more really good Vietnamese food. I'm really excited by Kin Shop. I don't know why I love Asian food so much. Maybe because the flavors are so different from Mediterranean flavors. People always want to know where I go out to eat Italian food and I'm like, "Uh, my house?" I can't wait to go to Red Egg, this new Ed Schoenfeld Chinese place; I love to go out to Queens, to Flushing, all of that.

Any new projects on the horizon? Well, I mean, I really am trying with my partner Matt to take the step and expand Porchetta. It's something we should have pushed a little harder for a little while ago, but I think we can still do it, and that's really my focus right now. I think we could do a Porchetta in Brooklyn, and I would love to do a Porchetta on the Upper West Side. And I have lots of fantasies about taking over a falafel stand and making really good Lebanese food. But I'm not even sure that's on the horizon. That's a pipe dream, maybe.

Do you fear that you're pigeonholed into only cooking Italian cuisine? I pretty much resigned myself to that a long time ago, actually. When I did patio dining in this hole-in-the-wall that I did in 2002 and 2003, down on 2nd Ave between 2nd and 1st, it was a really fun restaurant and an amazing experience. We really did go to the Greenmarket every day and buy our stuff because we had 24 seats—we could really do that. We changed the menu every day. It was really fun and magnificent. I did not feel obligated to cook Italian food. I was trying to cook more Mediterranean food. But I understand Italian food in a way I don't understand Thai food. I always get pulled back into it.