How to Spark Joy at the Dinner Table, in Global Brooklyn Style
PORTA, the latest addition to downtown Brooklyn's antiques row, showcases European tableware from independent artisans to celebrate the joy of entertaining at home.
BROOKYLN — In 2020, we learned how to travel at home. Without trips to take, our beloved souvenirs from faraway lands became sparks of joy.
For childhood best friends Alice Russotti and Francesca del Balzo — whose Italian parents' dinner parties filled with platters of saucy pasta and roaring conversation kept them up way past their bedtimes — the pandemic was an opportunity to trace their family lineages and celebrate the magic of gathering. In October, the pair debuted PORTA, a home goods shop on downtown Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue that's a treasure trove of tableware and entertaining accoutrements from Italy, Portugal, Spain, and beyond, with a focus on the craft and stories of independent artisans.
As the world reopened, the pair ventured across Europe, meeting makers, collaborating on one-of-a-kind pieces, and learning about local craft communities. From hand-painted plates depicting Siena's centuries-old Palio horse race to embroidered tablecloths from Northern Portugal, each piece is a celebration of big and small gatherings and of the beauty in details. The charming store, designed by New York's award-winning Giancarlo Valle, is as inviting as the pop of a Champagne bottle: A dinner table invites shoppers to interact with the goods as they design their dream dinner party.
While the pieces may be one of a kind, Alice and Francesca hope their customers will use them every day, because every gathering is an opportunity to have fun and to engage — and a table should set the tone for these moments. Which is to say that even if you don't have plans to jet off to Portugal, your 30-minute Tuesday supper or impromptu friend drop-by should still make you smile.
We sat down with them to ask what fuels their passion for travel, which souvenirs they always buy, and how they keep get-togethers stress-free.
How did PORTA come about?
In the immediate term, PORTA was a pandemic baby. I (Alice) have always worked in the arts and Francesca in fashion, and during the pandemic we both realized that we wanted to create our own world in a way that was meaningful and aligned with who we are, related to our past, present, and how we want to craft our future. In the long term, PORTA is the amalgamation of our familial histories — a long lineage of cooking, eating, drinking, and chatting.
What does travel mean to you?
There are two feelings that are the best — traveling and coming home. And you can’t have one without the other. Traveling is discovery, connection, fun, chance, and learning. Getting out of one's routine and context reminds you to see that there is a big, wide world out there — and it also allows you to look back at yourself with new eyes. It is refreshing, invigorating, and important. Coming home is comfort and love. It is the distilling of all that you have seen and learned while away to its most precious kernels and keeping them alive.
How does PORTA fuel your passion for travel?
PORTA has opened the door for us to have wonderful, purposeful trips that have a focus and keep us on our feet, but which always allow room for discovery. Over the last year we have been to Portugal and Spain, and we are off to Italy next week. Through these trips, we have learned the importance of not over-planning and giving ourselves room to think and react on the fly. Sometimes you think you are headed somewhere for one reason, and you come out with a gem of another.
Connecting with makers along the way is our main reason for traveling. Of course, we use the internet and Instagram, but there is nothing like driving hours to the top of a mountain to meet face-to-face with someone who works leather into bowls in a way that becomes an art form. Being in person is important to PORTA, from the beginning of the process through the end when people check out at the shop. It is what gives and preserves meaning. Beyond connecting with makers all over, which is fascinating and elucidating in so many ways, traveling has also been a vehicle for us to reach out to people for guidance and advice in every country we visit. The generosity of response has been remarkable and something that we will be ever grateful for and will always remember to emulate from here on out. Each trip we make reaffirms the importance of traveling for the store, and also for our own souls!
What are your favorite destinations for sourcing goods?
The wonderful thing about home goods is that they are made everywhere! Portugal was where we went on our first sourcing trip, and for many reasons it was pure magic. We work with small teams of makers, and found in Portugal a spirit, love, and pride surrounding craft and artisanal production that was unique. It makes me smile and want to head back there every time I think about it.
Every item at PORTA tells a story. Why is it important to share that story?
It's important because each item tells the story of someone's life and the histories of their families. It sounds serious to put it that way — especially when you are talking about an egg cup — but it really is true! These are things that have been made by hand and are finding their way into your home to become part of your daily life and memories. It is amazing and cool and fun to know a little about the things that objects are inherently imbued with through their stories.
You also collaborate and design your own goods with local artisans. What's that process like?
A lot of our products tread the line between the minimal and the maximal: finding detail that is not overwhelming and techniques that can speak to a contemporary aesthetic. Sometimes we find that in products that are already in production and we love. Other times we borrow elements from designs, colors, and techniques that we play with to make more of our moment. This can mean highlighting beautifully intricate embroidery from northwest Portugal and working with the makers to execute pieces in more muted tones, or taking an element of design from a tile, playing with the scale and working with an Italian stamperia to apply it to a tablecloth. It is a different journey each time.
Where did your passion for entertaining come from?
Alice: Our families! Our mothers are friends and both are fabulous hosts. Funny enough, they are opposites in many ways. My mother is out shopping for food a few hours before everyone comes over, throws together a quirky and original table with whatever is about, and whips up a delicious dinner for twelve in no time. Francesca’s mother is a brilliant planner who sets her beautiful table with flowers to die for days in advance of a dinner. My grandparents were always gathering the family as well: my grandmother cooking and preparing to the nines, whether it be Sunday lunch or Christmas dinner. We would go over for Sunday lunch every weekend, and I still remember her with a little blowtorch finishing the crème brûlée to perfection outside the dining room.
What can people expect when they shop?
We want people to feel at home when they come to PORTA. We love a good mix and matching, and we hope that there is always something new and exciting for people to connect to every time they come in. We also want people to feel they can always leave with something they love. PORTA is not just a place to buy a full set of things, but rather one we want people to pop into to grab a present for a friend they are going to dinner with. We have a garden in the back: We hope it will be an exciting and beautiful space for gatherings.
How often will the inventory change?
We will have a core line of products that we always carry, but other pieces will change seasonally so there is always something new to see. We sell online as well as in-store, but we will always make sure to have special, small runs in the shop that are not available online because we want people to come in person, get inspired, and play around.
Speed Round with Alice
We are usually laden with ceramics.
Three products you love for the table?
Marena glasses, a mix of Daria and Vito plates, Bud tablecloth, and Balea candle holders. (That last is a bonus because I couldn't resist, and they warm everything up.)
Signature dishes for entertaining?
Not exactly a dish, but chocolates, to go with a final glass of wine to prolong conversation at the end of dinner. My favorite are Minstrels — crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside, and the perfect size to keep popping. (You can’t get them in shops in the US, but I order them online.) I also love Rococo Chocolates, which are a real treat. There is nothing quite like their Praline Potatoes and their Salted Caramel Superior Seagull Eggs.
What is your no-stress party rule to live by?
Plan ahead, put on some good music, and enjoy yourself. If you are having fun, so will your friends.
What’s on your dinner party playlist?
It's a bit of a mash-up, but I guess it's uplifting and recognizable from different parts of life and makes you smile, tap, and wiggle in your seat a little.
Grateful Dead, "Friends of the Devil"
Talking Heads, "This Must Be the Place"
Dope Lemon, "Home Soon"
Norman Greenbaum, "Spirit in the Sky"
Celeste, "Love is Back"
HAIM, "Summer Girl"
Bobby Hebb, "Sunny"
Queen, "Cool Cat"
Cannons, "Fire For You"
The Faces, "Ooh La La"
PORTA is located at 360 Atlantic Avenue in the heart of Downtown Brooklyn's historic antiques row. You can shop all the beautiful things online at porta-nyc.com.