Sunday, September 30, 2007

SPQR opens on Fillmore

We've been trying to get to the famed A16 for years now -- for a while I had even worked with one of the restaurants investors, and still somehow I hadn't gotten there. Well, when we heard that the same crew was taking over the old Chez Nous space on Fillmore street and opening the Roman-cuisine focussed SPQR right up the street from us, we were shamed into going. Immediately.

Good thing too -- as it's a fabulous little neighborhood place where we're planning to spending a lot of time, so not a moment to waste!

The space hasn't gotten any larger than it was with Chez Nous, folks, so you're still sitting cheek by jowl with you fellow diners, but all the better to see and smell what the table next to you is eating. It kind of became a family-style experience with the couple who was near us -- apparently devotees of Nate Appleman's A16 -- chatting and exchanging food tips. The gentleman was from Italy and once he found out we were headed to Italia in October, he had numerous recommendations for what to eat and where -- a conversation that kept us from noticing that it did take a little while to get from one course to the next.

The place is busy, but the service was extremely pleasant and knowledgeable. We arrived at 6 and got the last seats open before the turnover. SPQR takes no reservations, so you just have to get in line and wait, but it's well worth the time.

We started with a round of three antipasti plates. None of them are too large, so three is fine for two people. Roasted friarelli peppers (an import from A16) were tossed in a really nice olive oil and sprinkled with chunky sea salt. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and the little buggers are thoroughly addictive.

The mozzarella and brioche panino was adequate, but probably the weakest dish of the evening (though certainly not terrible). I would have liked to have seen a bit more anchovy -- it felt as though the bread were rubbed lightly, but not enough, with anchovy oil.

The third item however, housemade pork sausage with caramelized onions, was heavenly. Onions were small -- maybe pearl onions or cipollines, caramelized with balsamic vinegar, and the soft sweetness was a lovely contrast with the salty sausage patty.

Our newfound friends also recommended the calamari, and a plate of scallops that went by me had me drifting along trailing after the scent.

For the next act, I had Spaghetti alla Carbonara, which made a nice light main for me, though it might not satisfy a heartier appetite. Pasta is homemade at SPQR and the sauce is flavored with flecks of guanciale. My Omnivore, though, had a spectacularly succulent Saltimbocca style pork cutlet, with fried sage leaves and probably the best braised frisee we've ever had. Pork was not only tender, but the outer browning of the cutlet was perfectly handled to make a flavor-packed crust.

S.P.Q.R., of course, stands for "Senatus Populusque Romani" (The Senate and the People of Rome), a brand stamped on every manhole cover in Rome. I've read that some non-Romans waggishly claim it mean "Sono Porcini Questi Romani" (These Romans are Pigs), but hey, if their pork tastes this good, the Romans should be proud to be pigs.

Desserts look a bit limited still, although, everything that we and the table next to us had was delicious. A shortbread crusted with honey nut brittle was rich, and packed with butter-- a little heavier than we wanted at the finish of the meal, so we took home much of it. The panino of brioche with caramel and a dusting of cocoa was much lighter and very tasty, though not earth-shattering. At the next table, they said that the almond milk granita was excellent -- and worth checking out.

Just as we were all getting set to stand up and squeeze out of the tables to make way for the impatient hordes at the door, the chef sent our friends glasses of moscato and the wine steward brought two for us as well.

"You guys are practically a four top anyway!" she said.

I was impressed -- not just by the Moscato, which was beautifully balanced naturally fizzy dessert wine, but by the fact that even in the frenzy of a busy Saturday night service, they noticed a detail like that.

SPQR, 1911 Fillmore Street at Bush, 415-771-7779

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