When in Rome ...
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If all roads lead to Rome or once did what does this tell us about the Eternal City? That it has terrible traffic? Yes, eternally since ancient times. That the city was and is an international city? Yes, again, though more so in yesteryear, when the imperial Romans called the Mediterranean Sea mare nostrum and grain grown in Egypt was shipped more than a thousand miles by boat to feed the capital's million or so citizens. In our locavore times, it is startling to think that a metropolis two millennia ago depended on such a sprawling foodshed.
At SPQR, a restaurant that opened late last year in the old Chez Nous space on Fillmore, the Roman feeling is more intimate and maybe that means more modern, since today's Italy no longer has its fingers in a host of imperial pies and Rome itself owes its international stature largely to its position as seat of the Catholic Church. Otherwise, the city is an Italian city, and its food is Italian food, with bits and influences taken from here and there across the peninsula. (The letters of the restaurant's name, incidentally, stand for "Senatus Populusque Romanus," meaning "the Senate and people of Rome.")
SPQR's powers that be, including executive chef Nate Appleman, have applied to the new restaurant the ethic they successfully introduced at their first one, A16 in the Marina. The ethic involves, in true European fashion, elements of preservation and innovation; A16 brought the flavors of Naples and Campania, including first-rate pizza, into the space once occupied by Zinzino, a creditable ristorante-pizzeria in its own right, and now SPQR succeeds Chez Nous, a pioneer in global tapas (with a slant toward Provence and the Maghrib), with a Roman-inflected menu that's very heavy on fabulous small plates. They're not called tapas, and since tapas fatigue set in some time ago around here, this is probably a wise choice.
These small courses are the heart of the menu and are arrayed under three rubrics: cold, hot, and fried. If ordered separately, they're $7 each, but you get three for $18 and five for $28, and because they're uniformly excellent, these bulk deals are good ones. (By small, by the way, I mean to imply "shareable," not "tiny.") The only small dish I found even slightly submemorable was a plate of crostini served with ricotta cheese and a pooling of peppery olio nuovo; the overall effect was gentle, with some crunch from the bread rounds and a hint of bite from the olive oil, like a teething puppy working a pinkie finger, and those little stimuli probably would have been enough if the other dishes hadn't been so impressive.
Fried means, in several cases, "deep-fried," and this can be among the guiltier of pleasures if it gets out of hand. Deep-frying didn't hurt bocconcini, gumball-sized blobs of mozzarella cheese, but it didn't add much, either, beyond producing a likeness to the risotto fritters known as arancini; the spicy tomato sauce for dipping was more tomato than spicy, but it carried a sufficient voltage of tartness to help cut the fat.
Chicken livers, on the other hand, benefited from the same treatment. Deep-frying helped moderate their blood-iron gaminess. (The Romans are said to be organ-meat aficionados, but I would say this is true throughout Italy and the rest of Europe, where for centuries meat has been expensive and hard to come by, and all parts of a food animal were and are appreciated, honored, and used.)
While beans are most closely associated with Tuscany, they turn up throughout Italian cooking, and if it turns up somewhere in Italian cooking, sooner or later it will turn up in Roman cooking. SPQR offers cellini beans a broad, white variety, similar to cannellini topped with a reddish soffrito of ground pork that resembles a cross between (Mexican) chorizo and Bolognese sauce. The kitchen also handles a pair of problem children with considerable skill: black kale is sautéed to tenderness but not mushiness with broccolini, golden garlic slivers, and enough red chili flakes to make a real entrance, while Brussels sprouts are split like baby artichoke hearts and flash-fried with garlic, capers, parsley, and plenty of lemon to tame the cabbage beast.
The signature Roman pasta sauce is amatriciana, which is typically a combination of onions, tomatoes, smoked pancetta, and a suggestion of chile heat, and it is usually tossed with fat, hollow string pasta, either bucatini or perciatelli. SPQR's version ($12) uses red instead of yellow or white onion, substitutes guanciale (cured pork cheek) for the pancetta, and leaves you to choose either spaghetti or rigatoni (both housemade) as your pasta. Choose either: you will be happy. The sauce is intense but civilized. If you like your pasta sauces creamy, you're also likely to be happy with the carbonara sauce ($12), made with guanciale, crushed black peppercorns, and pecorino cheese. Like gelato, it draws its richness from egg yolks.
Since Italian food isn't known for its spiciness, I was struck by the heat of the kale and amatriciana dishes. But, duly struck, I was less surprised by the "spicy chocolate" dessert ($7.50), chocolate mousse studded with Calabrian chiles and presented in a hot-chocolate cup under a dapper cap of whipped cream. The chile effect was mild, not much more than a tingle, but it did enhance the chocolate maybe just through simple stimulation.
A similar enhancement: the spooning of sugared bitter-orange zest over a thick slice of ricotta torte ($7.50) with crema fresca. The torte and its cream shawl were rich but a little shy, while the zest on its own would have been too sharp. But together, they are a simple symphony.
The restaurant doesn't take reservations. So: expect big crowds, of friends and countrymen, if not Romans.
Dinner: Sun.Thurs., 5:3010 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 5:3011 p.m.
Lunch: Mon.Fri., 11:30 a.m.2:30 p.m.
Brunch: Sat.Sun., 10:30 a.m.2:30 p.m.
1911 Fillmore, SF
Beer and wine