The restaurant group that gave us A-16, a culinary trip along the ankle of Italy, now takes us up highway A-1 north of Naples to Rome for SPQR, a new Roman osteria.
If the A-16 juggernaut was built on authentic Neopolitan thin crust, wood-fired pizza, the soul of the smaller SPQR resides in excitingly chewy house-made dried pasta sauced with traditional Roman simplicity. When you bite into SPQR pasta it fights back, springy, feisty, almost meaty, and chefs Nate Appleman and Daniel Holzman treat it as the main attraction.
Skinny strands of SPQR spaghetti embrace creamy carbonara sauce ($12) constructed with thin slices of guanciale (mild cured pork jowl), egg yolks that instantly cook when they hit the hot noodles, and pasta water, which melts the pecorino, a tangy, aged sheep milk cheese beloved by Romans. Freshly ground pepper adds counterpoint.
Black pepper plays an even bigger role in a three-ingredient pasta called cacio e pepe ($12) — just spaghetti, pecorino and black pepper — an even sleeker showcase for this classy spaghetti.
Other shapes, like little trumpets, capture olive oil braised broccoli and threads of salty ricotta salata ($12). The meltingly soft broccoli and the toothsome pasta were made for each other.
The ideal meal at SPQR begins with antipasti, $7 for one, $18 for three. Run your eye right down to the fried section of the menu for revelatory fried brussels sprouts with crisp leaves and crackling hits of garlic, capers and parsley — an SPQR signature dish that everyone is talking about.
But don't overlook tiny golden nuggets of sweetbreads scattered with raw celery marinated in lemon, garlic and oregano.
The “cold” antipasti selection includes salads, such as chicories in a dressing nuanced with anchovy (but a little too much lemon); or lightly pickled beet slices topped with a thick layer of fresh ricotta mixed with olive oil, salt and pepper — an Italian version of beets and cottage cheese.
After a shared SPQR pasta, split a rustic main course, such as beef short ribs alla vaccinara ($19), a pottery bowl of lean but tender boneless beef in spice-scented juices.
Dishes at SPQR are attractively served on earth-toned Heathware, the mid-century ceramic company from Sausalito. All are generously portioned and easily shared, which means that the food bill stays refreshingly modest.
Strikingly simple desserts from Jane Tseng complete the picture. I'm still thinking of the way almond milk granita with the texture of new snow, topped with a dollop of espresso crema ($7), melts on my tongue.
Italian wine guru Shelley Lindgren curates the sexy list with offerings in all price ranges and sizes, starting with 3-ounce pours. Her palate is as keen as ever. Have you ever tasted an arneis passito ($15) with a toasted sandwich of caramelized milk, pears, shaved chocolate and sea salt ($7)? She has, and you should — as a little gift to yourself.
One caveat: SPQR only takes walk-ins. But when I visited several times last week, the postage stamp-sized wooden tables and stools at the marble bar turned quickly. The kitchen worked efficiently and service flowed, so I never had to wait.
SPQR is so good that it’s worth making the adjustment of going at slightly off times.
Besides, being able to walk in anytime for such vivacious cooking is liberating, an advantage of living in an urbane city like San Francisco — or Rome.
Location: 1911 Fillmore St. (at Bush Street), San Francisco
Contact: (415) 771-7779; spqrsf.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; 5:30 to 11 p.m. every night; 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for brunch Saturday and Sunday
Price range: Antipasti, $7; pasta, $11-$13; entrees, $17-$19
Recommended dishes: Spaghetti carbonara, spaghetti cacio e pepe; trombetti with broccoli; deep-fried brussels sprouts; deep-fried sweetbreads; beef short ribs; almond milk granita
Credit cards: All major except Discover
Reservations: Walk-ins only