Prior to going out of town, I spend some time researching and compiling a list of places to eat. Sometimes it’s just to try a single item, say a certain sandwich or dessert, and other times I want a full meal that captures the complete experience of a restaurant. On my recent trip to San Francisco my “to-eat” list was long and varied, including iconic seafood institutions, hole-in-the-wall taco spots, and seemingly everything in between. Realistically, I wouldn’t have enough time (or stomach capacity) to stop at each place, but there was one in particular that was an absolute must – SPQR.
The name is an acronym for Senatus Populesque Romanus, which translates to “The People and Senate of Rome,” and I imagine that any visiting Roman would be pleased to see the respect shown for their history . Opened in 2007 by the team also responsible for A16, SPQR has the feel of a local, neighborhood spot serving an elevated take on classic, familiar Italian flavors. In 2009, Matthew Accarrino signed on as executive chef, and within a year was named a ” 2010 Rising Star” by Star Chefs. This past year, the restaurant received its first Michelin star, a major accomplishment, and a testament to the quality of cooking taking place with Accarrino in charge of the kitchen.
red romaine, summer bean, fried shallot, smoked goat cheddar and spallacia ham [$15]
A lovely salad of red romaine and summer beans arrived first providing some necessary greens for what would end up being a pasta-heavy meal. The freshness of the lettuce and beans was immediately apparent, crisp and sweet respectively, while every other element of the dish contributed in stellar fashion: the smokey notes of the cheese, saltiness from the cured ham, and crunch of the fried shallot.
corn panna cotta, smoked sturgeon, smoked mushroom, truffle: mexican and australian [$21]
Here was the first of two truffle dishes for the night, a smooth corn panna cotta topped with smoked sturgeon and a blanketing of Mexican and Australian truffles. The panna cotta was incredibly sweet and lush, while the sturgeon and tiny mushrooms imparted a bit of a salty-smokey quality. The truffles, of course, were luxurious and earthy.
egg yolk and ricotta raviolo, black truffle butter, Australian black truffle, truffled pecorino [$42]
All truffle everything. On its own the raviolo was a thing of beauty, its dome filled with ricotta cheese and creamy yolk just waiting to ooze out, but add a liberal shaving of Australian black truffle and truffle butter, and what you had here was just shy of orgasmic. All of that decadence didn’t come cheap, but the intensely rich flavors in each bite were well worth the price.
flax seed spaghetti, squash blossom pesto, ricotta saita and garlic breadcrumb [$22]
What sounded like a much-needed light pasta dish after all of those truffles ended up being quite filling and substantial. The spaghetti was perfectly al dente and coated with the squash blossom pesto that bordered on creamy, while the flowers themselves were quite buttery. The sprinkling of garlic breadcrumbs, along with everything else, really gave the pasta a rustic nature.
buckwheat tagliatelle, cider and bacon braised suckling pork and rapini [$22]
The final savory course of the evening was a buckwheat tagliatelle that, not surprisingly, reminded me a lot of buckwheat soba. Though the texture and flavor of the pasta was unique for an Italian dish, the pairing of pork and rapini was a familiar one, albeit executed in a stellar manner. The suckling pig was fatty, tender, and full of concentrated richness from the cider and bacon braising, while the bitterness of the rapini served to undercut a bit of the prevailing pork flavors.
Dinner at SPQR was easily among the most memorable meals of the year for me thus far. Sure, indulging in not one, but two truffle dishes is enough to turn any meal into a highlight, but really it was the other dishes that showed off the true talent in the kitchen. This was Italian food at its best, with modern techniques and seasonal ingredients applied to traditional flavors in superb fashion. As long as Executive Chef Matthew Accarrino is in charge of the locally-sourced and oft-changing menu, I have a feeling that SPQR will remain high on my “to-eat” list for quite some time.
1911 Fillmore St.
San Francisco, CA 94115
Dine date: Mon 8.19.13, 6:45pm