A hotshot chef with a Los Angeles vibe now runs the kitchen at SPQR, the upper Fillmore offshoot of A-16, transforming it from a populist Roman trattoria into a tony Pacific Heights ristorante.
In the wake of the walkout of their former chef, SPQR partners Shelley Lindgren and Victoria Libin auditioned a bunch of contenders, but they were so impressed with the sophisticated cooking of Matthew Accarrino, they shut down the 49-seat restaurant to start afresh with him.
Retooling the kitchen and improving acoustics, they reopened as a dinner house (also serving weekend brunch) with higher prices and reserved tables. Even though table tops remain bare and seating is close, the experience has drifted upward, shifting the demographic and the ambiance.
As a first-time head chef, Accarrino’s technique reflects his previous bosses, Thomas Keller at Per Se and Tom Colicchio at Craft, among others.
When he moved to the West Coast as chef de cuisine at Craft Los Angeles, he became obsessed with Northern California ingredients. Figuring that he might as well get as close as he could to the sources that excited him, he convinced the partners at SPQR to give him free rein to create his own version of a local Italian menu.
Though a bit big for such a small place, the current menu delivers many gems — such as deviled eggs with herbs and white anchovies ($7); and warm, crispy tongue slices layered with tiny cubes of apple, beet and shaved horseradish ($13).
Big hunks of achingly rich deep-fried pork belly are paired with a tingling herb salad of celery leaves and pickled red Italian peppers ($13) — a great combination, especially with crisp white Ribolla Gialla ($12 per glass).
Italian wine guru Shelly Lindgren never stops in her exploration of transcendent food and wine match-ups, and she trains her staff to pass them on.
Maybe Accarrino’s most direct influence is a little place in West Hollywood called Animal, where two former caterers play around with odd bits of animals and an eclectic Pacific Rim pantry of ingredients.
On SPQR’s long list of “spuntini” — small bites — these animal parts are the sexiest, if not the most successful, dishes. Thin slices of “crispy” pig ear with relishy pickled chiles, green tomatoes and radishes ($8), were too chewy, as were fried bits of tripe ($7), a little too redolent of animal.
He nails the pasta dishes. Some are very elegant: haunting chestnut “nicchi” with spigarello and burnt orange sauce ($16); or tender little pyramids of pasta filled with beef cheek, drizzled with butter and parmesan.
A few are rustic — a deep bowl of toothsome twisted maccheroni in a soulful duck-leg ragu ($15).
The dinner plate is his canvas. Main courses really show off Accarrino’s strengths — technique, balance, depth of flavor, composition.
A boneless quail, pink and moist, plump with farro, a nutty grain, rests on a juicy bed of lentils, braised greens and fruity conserved cherries ($18), complex yet hearty.
Accarrino also makes the desserts, and frankly, I don’t think he has enough time to give them full attention.
SPQR may have name recognition, but everything has changed. The road from fried Brussels sprouts, the former kitchen’s famous dish, to Accarrino’s fried pork belly takes the diner straight uphill.
Patricia Unterman is author of the second edition of “The San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at email@example.com.
Location: 1911 Fillmore St., San Francisco
Contact: (415) 771-7779; www.spqrsf.com
Hours: 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sundays for dinner; 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays for brunch
Price range: $5 to $18
Recommended dishes: Tongue, deviled eggs, pork belly, quail, rabbit, maccheroni, chestnut “nicchi,” yam raviolini
Credit cards: All major except Discover
Reservations: Through www.opentable.com only