Restaurants: SPQR, San Francisco
You know a restaurant’s importance in the common vernacular of a city when the initials which make up the restaurant’s name are the medium for learning the abbreviation of one of history’s most important and powerful empires.
I remember visiting a friend from San Francisco studying in Rome a few years ago. With no knowledge of what “SPQR” stood for in Caesar’s day, he noticed the “SPQR” written at the base of the Julius Caesar statue overlooking the Forum’s ruins, and mentioned how those are the same letters as that restaurant in San Francisco owned by A16 (we had dined at A16 right before he departed for Rome).
Prior to my most recent visit to SPQR, the Pacific Heights, San Francisco, modern Italian restaurant, a fellow diner thought that the “Q” was a “U”, and the restaurant is named “Spur.” No, Spur is a gastropub in Seattle.
SPQR is not only one of the most rollicking dining adventures you will have today in the city of many more than seven hills, but indeed, as what inspired the name of the restaurant, it also stands for “The Senate and People of Rome.”
Before shades of Russell Crowe in Gladiator gear and Kirk Douglas as Spartacus frame your opinion of this restaurant, understand that really the SPQR here could mean Sterling Pastas Quietly Re-Discovered.
SPQR deserves even more fame than it has achieved over its first five years. For all we know, San Francisco might do Italian cuisine better than Italy. Quince is the Relais & Chateaux truffle-heavy, superlative destination, Acquerello is the more traditional, formal Italian dining room, and Flour + Water and Delfina are the young, brash innovators of California meets Italian mama’s cucina that somehow is what you almost always want for dinner. The list goes on and on. And then there are always the Italian trattorias in the city’s Little Italy, North Beach, mostly reserved for the tourists who mistook San Francisco for Venice. The Bay doesn’t look much like a canal, but at least Stanford closely resembles Florence. These trattorias wouldn’t survive a day in Tuscany.
If SPQR were studying in college, it would major in pasta and be that gifted athlete-scholar who doesn’t date the lead cheerleader or throw touchdown passes to win championships. That pasta-making skill continues to lead SPQR today. Yet it is truly a da Vinci Renaissance man of a restaurant, where the slightly imposing menu runs the whole gamut and almost always prospers.
Just don’t call SPQR strictly a Roman restaurant. That honor for San Francisco goes to the year-old Locanda, Delfina’s younger sibling, who is much stricter in re-interpreting the likes of Jewish-style artichokes, rigatoni alla carbonara, and trippa alla romana.
After scoring a major success in 2004 that continues to thrive in San Francisco’s Marina District with the Campania region-inspired A16, Shelley Lindgren opened SPQR in 2007 up the hill on a then up-and-coming stretch of Fillmore Street, with the assistance of A16 owner Victoria Libin and A16’s founding chef Christopher Hille (now chef/owner of New York’s Northern Spy Foods). The new trattoria was close enough to Pacific Heights to feel the affluent pull of that elegant residential neighborhood and close enough to the gritty Western Addition and shopping malls of Japantown to not be the most desirable of locales.
Lindgren is one of the country’s true masters of the complex world that is Italian wines. Credit her too with being a trail-blazer seeking out those obscure varietals and encouraging the dining public to be brave and embrace these wines. That is far from an easy task in this Chardonnay-Cabernet Sauvignon-centric area, with just a few small wine-growing regions to the north and south producing wines that fit diners’ comfort zones.
With the wine program set and garnering a slew of awards (and continuing to do so), SPQR opened with an emphasis on Roman cuisine. Then in 2009, an exciting young chef, originally from New Jersey, was brought in. Matthew Accarrino graduated in 1998 from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, and then as a harbinger of his executive chef post in San Francisco a decade later, worked at the Michelin-starred Antonello Colonna Restaurant, in Labico, Italy, not far from Rome.
Returning to the U.S., Accarrino worked in various New York kitchens until landing a post as Thomas Keller’s opening sous chef for Per Se in 2004, the same year of A16’s debut. Next was Los Angeles for Accarrino, where he served as the opening chef de cuisine at Craft Los Angeles for Tom Collichio. The Time Warner Center and Century City might be worlds away from rural Labico. Yet, all of his experiences are now clearly on display nightly with the at-times simple and other times ambitiously complex, always ingredient-driven cooking, with the haute cuisine techniques Accarrino presents.
Over the years SPQR has evolved. The Roman emphasis is not necessarily in ruins. Instead, Accarrino has really pioneered a new Modern Italian cuisine. Many of the country’s bright chefs bring Italian influences to California cuisine. Here, Accarrino turns us around with Californian ingredients and sensibilities loosening traditional Italian cuisine, creating a newer, bolder brand of trattoria.
Accarrino and Lindgren are now receiving their deserved standing ovation with this autumn’s release of their cookbook inspired by the restaurant, SPQR: Modern Italian Food and Wine, written with Kate Leahy.
After looking through many of the recipes, it’s the perfect gift for a cook this holiday season. Cooks of my caliber have no chance at replicating these often very daunting recipes. I will never be a master of cooking like Accarrino or vinology like Lindgren. Fortunately, we have SPQR to savor the many merits of these two, with their excellent supporting team at the restaurant that knows how to craft parsnip tortelli far superior than mine.
Don’t fall too deeply in love with any dish on SPQR’s menu because chances are it will be replaced tomorrow, if not by next week. Interestingly, Accarrino might be best known for crafting pastas with chocolate in the dough, including a chocolate bucatini with Marsala braised duck ragu. However, not one time have I visited and actually seen the secretive, chocolate-based pasta on the menu.
If there is a constant signature you can rely on, it would be a variation on the Roman classic, Carbonara. Accarrino first smokes the flour used in the fettuccini’s dough, the perfect complement to the smoky nature of bacon. Then topped with a soft quail egg, the dish turns everyone into a five-year-old with playdough, mixing up all the ingredients into a common sauce. Is that sea urchin with the quail egg? You bet. This is new-wave carbonara, tradition tweaked by the terroir for the better.
You may find hearty preparations, including bludnudlen with a Tuscan blood sausage ragu or creste di galli with a wild boar sausage sugo. The Anthony Bourdain in us will surely go for a pig’s head pyramidi, tamed by hakurei turnip and Sartori fontina cheese.
Pastas can veer towards the lighter, sunnier side of Italy too, speaking of the boot part of the country. Or even Sicily or Sardinia. Squid ink chittara comes perfectly al dente, speckled with garlic breadcrumbs and tuna confitura. The accompanying sauce Livornese is based on tomatoes, olives, and capers, but an additional element could have ignited this decent, but not memorable dish. Perhaps some fishy bottara flakes could do the trick.
I admired the rabbit lasagna’s composition, as intricate as a sculpture. I felt like an archaeologist carefully combing through the Forum’s ruins, while dissecting this work of art. Unfortunately, only the arugula pesto underneath the lasagna shined. The rabbit was slightly dry and begged for more seasoning to enhance the terrific dough sheets. Lasagna certainly is having its moment, whether here or across town at Rich Table with chicken or duck as the basis, and sometimes with plums even involved underneath the dozen or so thin, intricate layers of pasta and meat. These aren’t your Mama’s lasagnas.
Last winter Accarrino crafted what may have been the most impressive pasta I’ve encountered yet. Spinach colored, slightly curved and flattened rigatoni shaped pasta called “mezze maniche” provided the perfect foil to the intensely rustic, yet youthfully light, pumpkin strips, crisp oregano scented breadcrumbs, and chopped beef brisket, every bit as smoky and tender as what I’ve tasted in Lockhart, Texas.
Possibly even more stunning then was a fascinating surf-and-turf combination with the most beef-intensive tasting, silky smooth, chopped Wagyu beef tartare, contrasting like night with day to the briny fried oysters, accentuated by fingerling potatoes and pork cracklings. It’s not as heavy as it sounds, and the introduction of oyster to meat is bliss–and we’re not talking about Rocky Mountain oysters.
That was 11 months ago. Not one menu item was the same this past month, except for the always exceptional chicken liver mousse with balsamic gelatina and some form of fruit compote. No meal is allowed to go forth without an order.
I’m torn about the menu format and size at SPQR. You’ll never order all of the tastes you’d like to sample, often having to resort to no secondi or all pastas or no pastas unless you have a larger party. The four sections go from three selections as “piccoli” to 8-10 “antipasti” and “primi,” with 3-4 “secondi.” Credit goes to Accarrino for the consistency with such a large quantity of dishes available. Would it possibly be easier on the kitchen and less frustrating at the meal’s start for diners to trim the menu? Going against the current trend, SPQR has no tasting menu, surprising given how many exciting tastes the menu provides.
Chicken liver shines again in an antipasti where they are spotlessly fried, then served over a dill-heavy mascarpone cheese spread, with pea shoots, pickled onions, and heirloom tomatoes in two forms. Italy? Fritto misto inspired, perhaps. California? Certainly has elements of here. Italy-California? You bet.
The fun keeps coming: lightly cooked albacore tuna with golden raisin “scapece,” a decidedly non-Italian sweet carrot and lentil salad with Medjool dates and a vadouvan curry crema, or a suckling pig confitura with a charred vegetable sauce and pickled peppers.
An excellent “piccolo” involves chicory lettuce on a black slate dish, covered with a vibrant pear butter, almonds, and goat cheddar, tied together by a pink pepper vinaigrette– a beautiful re-invention of the classic, over-used lettuce, pear, bleu cheese, and nut salad.
The premier dish currently not involving pasta is the “insalta di estate.” Again on a black slate, the presentation is landscape style with halved figs, a central plaza of burrata, padron peppers, a wild fennel laced biscuit bun, and a drizzle of white balsamic vinegar. What a masterpiece! As separate components or together in bites, everything sings. The figs are as bright and bursting with energy as the voluptuous muses of a Renoir masterpiece; even David Chang wouldn’t mind eating an unadorned bowl of these figs.
Secondis aren’t afterthoughts, though they often are when ordering since they don’t allow for as much grazing elsewhere. Fall is everywhere when Arctic char is accompanied by huckleberry agrodolce and a pair of mushroom components: in budino form and crispy fried hen of the woods. I admired the simple sounding, yet much more complex, suckling pork dish, where the supporting cast outshone the pork. Gravenstein apple puree, chanterelle mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, chestnuts, and a hint of black garlic created a marvelous stage for the suckling pig in a trio of forms: delightful crisp pig ears, a formidable porchetta with elements of sausage and pork belly, and a clunker of two dry cubes of pork loin.
Desserts don’t catch your attention as much as the savories. They’re often in the landscape form, including a perfectly fine “variations on chocolate” with coconut and Earl Grey. Much better is intriguing farro and gianduja chocolate “budino di pane.” No, it’s not budino. It’s a hazelnut-flavored cake, with sliced hazelnuts and orange curd livening it up, complete with a scoop of chocolate ice cream.
Led by Lindgren’s consummate organization, the service is reliably excellent. It’s never easy to pace meals where the courses sort of blur borders. Only once did we have a noticeably long lull, coming between pastas and the secondi. The waiters and waitresses won’t kiss you like family, as has happened to me in trattorias in Rome and Pisa. They are very helpful and amiable, however, with wine, how to organize the meal, and explaining the sometimes very confusing menu. With a menu forcing you to over-order impulsively, a wine list with dozens of unknown varietals, and at least two parts to each dish you’ve never heard of, this is one of the most challenging places for a server. Bravissimo for their professionalism; it is very appreciated.
Speaking of the wine list, a round of applause to Lindgren for the sheer depth of the list, along with the gentle for a top-tier restaurant, mark-up prices and the opportunity to order three-ounce tastings of wines and half-carafes. Just like why should we bound by Napa wines and French wines, why be stuck with only glasses and by-the-bottle orders? Soon, you’ll be an expert on the wines of Marche and Lombardia in no time.
Like any worthwhile trattoria, dining inside SPQR is a crammed, convivial experience. Barely 50 people can squeeze into the front area with a single central pathway, leading to the bar seating and kitchen counter seating towards the rear. Bathed in handsome black, the dining room echoes the modern sentiments of the cuisine, instead of veering towards the rustic architecture that most trattorias feature. It almost seems as if Armani designed the room.
Do note that SPQR serves an impressive, abbreviated weekend lunch menu that is indeed more lunch than brunch. It’s not the place for your hangover-cure French toast.
This is the place, however, for some of the country’s most inspired cooking of the moment. Here, California and Italy, two of the world’s most prominent culinary inspirations, are tied together through the brilliant, modern-thinking mind of a gifted chef. Molto bené! Caesar would be a regular here.