Crispy pig’s ear (and radish).
Chopped chicken liver.
Duck ravioli, dolcetto-poached sour cherries, pecans.
Ramp tagliatelle with sea urchin, crab.
It’s no newsflash that I eat out a lot. Hell, I have built a business around dining out. So when a little song starts playing in my head, “One of these things is not like the other(s),” you can bet I get fired up. Chef Matthew Accarrino (Craft, Per Se) took over the kitchen at ~SPQR~ at the end of 2009, when Nate Appleman peeled out and left for New York. If you haven’t been back since Accarrino took over, I have seven words for you: what the heck are you waiting for? I’ve been telling people this is some of my favorite food in the city right now, and when I was asked in an interview for Northside, “If you had to eat at one restaurant every day for a month, which would it be?” Well, now you know my answer. The menu is varied and interesting enough that I could easily eat here each day and not tire of it.
The first time I dined here, I was like, uh, how on earth is that little kitchen cranking out such an extensive menu? Truly, it’s one of the longest Italian menus in the city—not quite a 100-item Thai or Chinese menu, but damn, it’s significant. Just reading the list of the 18 or so spuntini is going to make your mind whir with desire, followed with something like 12 pastas (at one point there were even 16).
The food is no longer rustic, and I wouldn’t call it Roman… and those fried Brussels sprouts are merely a distant memory. The cuisine here is much more modern—it’s what I’d call soigné Italian. The presentations are composed and downright lovely, the flavors are complex and layered but also delightfully balanced (and so very delicious), and you can see a lot of classic technique shine through on the dishes (especially when elevating some of the more humble ingredients). You can also tell Accarrino is having a lot of fun with our stellar local ingredients—there are so many different flavors that he integrates, so each dish is quite unique unto itself. Quality, all the way. And again, the food is quite beautiful here—you hear little ooohs of delight at various tables as dishes get set down in front of diners.
Let’s dive into the spuntini (small starters). I can’t stop ordering the crispy pig’s ear ($8) on each visit, little triangles of braised fatty-crispiness, balanced with the acid and heat of pickled jalapeño and tomatillo, and a little prickle of peppery radish and arugula. The dish has it all: spice, heat, tanginess, texture… It’s like a mash-up dish a kickass Mexican cook in an Italian kitchen would make. Turns my crank like Fatty Crab in New York’s pork belly and watermelon salad (rawr, I love that dish). Another one in that camp of fatty-spicy-sour is the cured and braised lamb belly ($11), burnished squares in a golden raisin Venetian-style “en saor” agrodolce sauce with thinly sliced carrot and onion, all topped with flowering mustard blossoms. Not too tart, not too hot, not too fatty. Truly just right, with fully loaded flavor. (Accarrino is now rolling the belly, instead of serving it as squares.)
Let’s cruise over to the luxurious path. There’s the smooth chopped chicken liver ($9), which comes in a little flip-top mason jar—earthy, dense, rich, and generous—cut with a top layer of apple jam and balsamic vinegar gelatina. You only need to slather a little bit on the accompanying triangles of garlic-rubbed crostini, which were one of the few signs of rusticity, thick and slightly burnt. Accarrino’s trademark dish is the bone marrow sformatino ($8), a quivering and rich puck of creamy, beefy custard, with a fluffy cloud of Microplaned horseradish, crisp ribbons of smoked bacon, and a swath of onion purée, along with caramelized cipollini onions and watercress, with beef jus over the top. What can I say, the dish is total sex. Dirty sex in an expensive steakhouse.
I could go on and on (don’t blame me, it’s the menu’s fault). There are the pig tail crocchetti ($9); a rarely seen and delicate partridge galantina ($12)—a total wow pairing with the Elena Walch gewürztraminer off wine director Shelley Lindgren’s list; the perfectly runny and bright yellow yolk of the farm egg “in the hole” ($12) with meaty chanterelles and hunky lardons, balanced with the grassy twang from the miner’s lettuce… Sure, there were a few “meh” moments, like I found the coating on the fried tripe a bit heavy, or the fried surf clams weren’t served hot enough—especially against the cherry pepper salad and shaved fennel—but they sure managed to still taste delicious (we called this dish calamari 2.0). Sometimes a few dishes are a bit overseasoned, but very far from ever being on the inedible scale.
Okay, you might need to stop there after the spuntini, and then come back for a tour of the pastas. Oh, you want more? Well done. Okay, wave two, here we go. Yeah, you’re looking at a list of about 12 pastas, and you are going to want to try them all, trust me. Lots of housemade and seasonal stuffed pastas here, from rabbit and truffle cappelletti to sunchoke tortellini. (Yup, they’re creative, too.) There’s the brilliantly executed ricotta and egg raviolo ($15)—and no, that raviolo was not cheap, like, ow, but the mouthfeel of the creamy Fontina and melted butter helped suspend any sticker shock. The elegant dish of duck ravioli ($16) almost had the texture of pulled pork inside, paired with dolcetto-poached sour cherries and pecans (served just a touch too big for me), and browned butter—the dish just begged for a perfect wine pairing. (Sheelllllllleeeeeeey!) And then the chestnut nicchi ($16)—little origami-like packets with their nutty and creamy filling, flourished with a burnt orange sauce—were so pretty to eat that they were almost like dessert.
In case you want something more hearty and less delicate/refined, go for the squid ink scungilli ($18), a pasta shape with the texture and juice-trapping tread of morels. The gutsy dish comes loaded with southern Italian assertiveness from the braised octopus in a “puttanesca” sauce, studded with superlative capers, sliced garlic, and a mix of olives. Another time there were twisted and peppery gemelli ($16), simply presented with pecorino and small shavings of the bottarga-like cuore di tonno (tuna heart, a total umami-fest). But really, how could you turn down a tower of the rich ramp tagliatelle ($19), dressed in a spicy tomato sauce with bites of Dungeness crab and sea urchin butter, a lobe of sea urchin perched on top, and a feisty bite from ramp leaves?
And here’s the hard part: now that I have you all excited over these pastas, only a few may still be on the menu. I know, mi dispiace. Every time I’ve dined here, it’s almost an entirely new lineup, with different seasonal ingredients driving the bus. It’s like speed dating, I guess.
Oh lordy, you didn’t forget you still have some mains to try, did you?! Like the plump farro-stuffed quail ($19) on a bed of Swiss chard and Umbrian lentils, bright with notes of citrus; flavorful meats, like beef short rib ($18)—and now subbed out for a lamb shoulder; or even a juicy pork sausage ($17) with a turnip purée and mostarda.
Dessert. Can you do it? Just want a bite? Finish with the chocolate baci ($5) with mascarpone cream, tangy and moist little cousins to black bottom cupcakes. There was once a milk chocolate gelato with a chocolate coating that took me back to the days of Magic Shell, topped with a buttermilk crumble and candied almonds—total tin roof heaven. A brown butter torta ($8) didn’t win me over (it tasted more like a breakfast muffin), and a tropical passion fruit panna cotta felt like something that needed to be around the corner at Out the Door. Well, there’s always the option of some excellent Italian cheeses…
Man, is this place small. It always has been (remember when it was Chez Nous?). You will be packed in very closely to other people, so don’t bring anyone claustrophobic with you. Make a reservation, or you’ll be stuck waiting outside a long time at this popular and buzzing place. I tend to prefer the bar seating here (closer proximity to the wine, heh), or even better, the (hot) seats at the chef counter overlooking the galley-like kitchen in the back (with practically an all-female crew—go sisters!).
I think this is a great spot to bring out-of-towners for a taste of SF style, and it would be such a fun date spot (but then again, the food may steal too much attention away from your date, I’m not kidding). Great for girls’ night out. And the food is easy to share, so small groups can taste a lot of dishes together (operative word: small). The music is hip (did I just hear the White Stripes?), and the atmosphere is lively—and definitely fueled by Lindgren’s list of choice wines, many of them lesser-known, so be sure to ask the knowledgeable staff. There are a bunch available by the taste, like 30, so be adventurous—you’ll taste so many delicious Italian wines that you’ll be upgrading to a half carafe in no time. Have fun.
I’m waving a checkered flag here—this place is a winner, and it’s time to clear the track and head on in. (And I need to follow my own advice for their weekend brunch, which I haven’t had a chance to check out yet—I will add it to this review once I refuel and get out of the pit.) And since Accarrino just returned from a research trip to Italy, you know he’s going to be trying all kinds of new dishes on the menu. Come hungry.