As the longtime cultural center of the Apennine Peninsula, Rome has incorporated ingredients and dishes from many other regions into its cuisine. Its pantry is fundamentally southern — the main fat is olive oil; many dishes start with a soffrito of diced onions, carrot, and celery; tomatoes, garlic, and fresh herbs are used in abundance; pasta comes from a factory rather than grandma's rolling pin; meat, often lamb, is used sparingly — but the cooking has strong northern influences, such as a fondness for rice, polenta, cured pork products, and beef. Perhaps the most specifically Roman characteristic is a fondness for gutsy, salty, tart seasonings such as capers, anchovies, lemon, and vinegar.
SPQR, the second venture from the people behind A16, makes a serious and mostly successful effort to capture that style and spirit. The restaurant's name, an acronym for the Latin phrase Senatus Populusque Romanus (The Senate and the Roman People), has been the city's official stamp for 2,000 years, and still appears on its manhole covers. The space has been modestly redecorated since its former incarnation as Chez Nous, with more dark wood giving a slightly more formal vibe, offset by whimsical Italian advertising posters. The basic layout is the same except for a larger bar with additional seating, but somehow it feels less crowded. Compared to A16, SQPR feels small, quiet, and cozy.
Half the menu is devoted to antipasti, split into cold, hot, and fried. They're priced to encourage grazing: Order five and get 20 percent off. First, the cold section: a salad of radicchio, frisée, and other bitter chicories is paired with a great lemon-anchovy dressing reminiscent of a caesar. Pinzimonio is a selection of crunchy seasonal vegetables such as romaine lettuce, cucumber, slices of fennel, and radishes with a dip of salsa verde. The ingredients in a delicious butternut squash and red onion “sott'olio” are fried separately to render the moisture out, then marinated in olive oil. A wonderful and different “celery and tuna conserva” achieves a perfect balance among crunchy celery, starchy potatoes, fishy tuna, fishier bottarga (shaved, dried mullet roe), and zippy lemon. A simple salad of marinated beets and ethereal fresh ricotta highlighted both.
Next is the hot section. A subtle dish of roast chanterelles and sunchokes with pancetta and parsley is so delicate that it should be ordered to come before any items heavy on anchovies and capers; the helping would be smallish for more than two diners. Grilled pecorino cheese with marinated mushrooms is similar to the Greek saganaki, good but a little bland. Mozzarella in carrozza is a nice grilled-cheese sandwich spiked with a bit of anchovy. The octopus is fabulous: Big chunks of tender tentacles are paired with creamy potatoes, fried chiles, and lemon juice.
Last but not least is the fried section. The fried brussels sprouts with garlic, capers, lemon, and parsley are so great it sometimes looks as if every table in the place has ordered them. These are even better than the trendy oven-roasted version, since they're crisper. By comparison, fried cauliflower with Calabrian chiles is a bit boring. Perfectly fried chicken livers are satisfying if you like that sort of thing, but would be better with more seasoning than just the proffered lemon wedges, such as the celery, garlic, onion, and oregano in the similarly prepared sweetbreads. Salt cod and potato croquettes — deep-fried balls of brandade — are glorious.
Traditionally, suppli al telefono are round balls of rice with a chunk of mozzarella in the middle; when you bite into one out of the fryer, the cheese makes long strings, hence the “telefono” in the name. SPQR's were instead large and flattish patties with the mozzarella mixed in with the rice, and (at least when I tried them) not served piping hot. They were still tasty, but they could be improved by hewing closer to the original.
The pasta — oddly for a Roman restaurant — is all made in-house, but the spaghetti and rigatoni are 100 percent semolina, dried, and comparable to imported artisanal products. Spaghetti all'amatriciana is delicious, with a strong gamy aroma from guanciale (cured hog jowl, similar to pancetta), enough chiles to shock the average Roman, and just a hint of tomatoes, reduced so the sauce adheres well to the pasta, and finished with a generous dusting of sharp pecorino. Rigatoni alla carbonara is coated with a creamy sauce of eggs, black pepper, and pecorino; this is untraditional due to the guanciale being in thin strips rather than diced, but very true to the spirit of the dish. A daily special of baked lasagna with fresh pasta, housemade pork sausage, and escarole was the only unsuccessful dish out of several meals. The tomato sauce was too watery, the noodles were a bit overcooked, and everything was undersalted.
Entrées are easily shareable. A beef brisket garofolato braised with pancetta, red wine, and tomato has a melt-in-the-mouth texture and great flavor, with only the faintest hint of the clove (garofano) that gives the dish its name. Lamb neck braised with rosemary and tomato is equally good, with a deep gamy flavor. Calamari with garbanzos, capers, spigarello, and onions is less interesting.
Pastry chef Jane Tseng's desserts are among the best in town. Barely sweet almond-milk granita, scraped from a frozen block, has the texture of fresh, dry snow. Topped with a scoop of unsweetened, coffee-flavored whipped cream, it's simply incredible. Also extraordinary is a rich chocolate panna cotta paired with a dollop of walnuts mixed with walnut paste and slices of persimmon, which provide most of the very slight sweetness. A budino di riso with chunks of quince, toasted pistachios, and hints of sweet spices, honey, and citrus has a lovely contrast of textures. A panino with caramelized milk, pears, shaved chocolate, and sea salt is a great idea, but a bit too sweet — it might have been better balanced with a bitterer chocolate.
Any Italian meal ends with espresso, and SPQR's is perfect by Roman standards. The dark-roast coffee gets only a short pull, producing a mere half-demitasse of nutty, creamy, not-scalding-hot essence. Though it isn't on the menu, the bar makes a perfect affogato (espresso with a scoop of ice cream). To suit American taste and horrify any actual Romans, there's also first-rate French-press coffee.
In another radical departure from tradition, on weekends SPQR offers a brunch menu, in which the entrées are replaced by eggs, pancakes, and other American-influenced items. A dish of fried eggs with salsa verde, fried chicken livers, potatoes, and pancetta is a much better setting for the livers than the plain appetizer. A roast pork belly sandwich with marinated vegetables and mayonnaise had a structural flaw — the skin encircling the round of fatty pork wasn't crisp, so on the first bite it stuck to my teeth and pulled loose — but was nevertheless delicious.
Is there any limit to San Franciscans' appetite for rustic Italian food? If so, the full and happy house at SPQR says we're a long way from reaching it. Buon appetito!