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SPQR, San Francisco

SPQR is big-city Italian cuisine, the big cities of Italy that is. I could have easily been in Florence, Roma, and Bari respectively for each of my 3 courses.

My first course reminded me of Florence, a pate’ of chicken liver topped with a rhubarb marmelatta. Smooth and lovely fegato with the contrast of the marmelatta as the perfect foil. I can’t really say more because the dish was what it should be from the first sentence, chicken liver pate, no more no less. Simple and Italian.

My second course brought me to Milan or Rome, a big cosmopolitan city for Sformato or asparagus custard, with foraged mushrooms, fonduta, and more asparagus. Well prepared, lots of flavors, nearly an overload of flavor in each bite; which makes me know in my heart, that this dish wasn’t simple Italian, but cosmopolitan Roman in final presentation. Most  Italian restaurants, outside of many Michelin starred establishments, would have made the custard, presented the asparagus around the plate with a bit of the cheese or olive oil, that’s all. I was looking at some pictures of a few meals in Italy where only the timbale was present with no garnish. Simply having to explain all the elements leads me to believe that this wasn’t the straightforward Italian dish it was supposed to be, but rather a competitive Roman or Milan based restaurant competing for Michelin stars. Make no mistake, it was well executed and tasty, but not simple by any stretch.

My third dish reminded me of Bari and southern Italy, and what fond memories they are. A fettuccini pasta, with sea urchin, smoked bacon, and quail egg was simply delicious. The pasta was Italian al dente, each element stood on its own, yet complimented the other. This was real Italian food, not overwrought, but simple and flavorful. Some Italians may have incorporated the raw egg into the pasta sauce itself, rather than for decoration, I admit, perhaps even eliminated the bacon. But the key here was balance, nothing was overdone, nothing pretentious.

I’m pleased with my meal at SPQR and would like to return to Italy sooner, rather than later. I’m certainly happy that I live so close to San Francisco that I can have a choice of authentically Italian dishes and the reminder that comes with them.

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