Saturday, April 30, 2011

SPQR Fillmore - Senatus Populus que Romanae

California Burrata
with hazelnuts and herbs
My youngest daughter is visiting Rome as I write this. She’s one of the people with whom I love to eat most, her delight in good food is absolutely contagious. I am blessed in that my girls are my friends and companions, tolerating my maternal “insights” with boundless patience. Often featured on this blog, my youngest was mentioned first as the Law Student. After three years and a successful attempt at passing the California State Bar, she was soon sworn in, graduating here to the moniker of Baby Lawyer. Well the BL is quitting her fancy job and moving to Rome for love. Once there, she is planning to make a living teaching legal writing in English to native Italian-speaking lawyers. A job like that presents a challenge when faced with coming up with yet another pseudonym for this blog.

But I rise to a challenge.  Once there she will perhaps become the Traveler. The Teacher. The Transplanted Italian. I will hope for inspiration for her new nickname when we manage to eat a meal together “in Country.” At least there is that. I can visit her there, half a world away— time and finances providing. I wonder occasionally if she’ll enjoy living there, and I think for a time the answer will be yes. She is, after all, bringing my father’s family full-circle, returning to live in the land of my grandfather’s birth.

Crudo of Yellowtail
It’s a beautiful city, Roma. An urban place that is both modern and ancient, present and past. Open vistas look out upon the Tiber, an ancient slow-moving river, across which can be seen the dome of St. Peter’s. A morning walk for coffee can easily terminate at a great monument — the Coliseum ---  the Pantheon. Yet Rome’s streets are full of frantic mopeds and tiny racing cars, looking like nothing so much as the Matchbox cars of my very American childhood. All of them a blur, all carrying Italians hurrying somewhere else, speeding to a job or a date or an urgent appointment. Perhaps a tryst. Romans hurry. A lot. I wonder if they are conscious of the centuries of history that lays quietly beneath them as they fly about on the surface streets of this massive museum of a City. Or are they somehow in such a rush that they are unaware, taking for granted the magic beneath their feet. “Sempre Avanti” was my father’s favorite Italian phrase. Always forward. Like the Romans.

Waygu Beef Carpaccio

Italians are rooted in the pride of their history, yet often so absorbed in the business of living that they don’t stop for even a moment. Perhaps they believe that if they did stop, they might miss some tiny glorious fragment of life, and in doing so, commit the worst of mortal sins. That of failing to appreciate la dolce vida. Italians are nothing if not aware of the power in the beauty of simply living.

This train of thought took me naturally to a meal I shared recently with friends. We dined at S.P.Q.R. in San Francisco. A restaurant named after something uniquely Roman. The big heavy cast iron manholes line the streets, another bit of visible history speaking to a time gone before, all of them stamped with the logo ‘S.P.Q.R.’ Senatus Populusque Romanae : The Senate and People of Rome.

 The restaurant that bears this ancient moniker manages to capture in its food everything that Rome herself conveys. Without necessarily always translating directly into Italian food, the meals to be had there are vivid, like the city herself. The food at SPQR wears a modern exterior, culinarily speaking, yet holds within it flavors that bespeak a generous amount of adventure. Perhaps the chef understands what it means to build impact into layers of flavor, giving the diner a sense that beneath the surface there is more to be discovered. Much like the city reflected in the inscription that graces it’s doorway, SPQR embraces its name, and bears witness to the notion that there is more than meets the eye, that here there may continually be found something new, an adventure to be had. The next mouthful may reveal hidden treasure.
Pork Trotter

We are an adventurous lot, and so sampled a great deal of the menu. My companions on this occasion were the Dapper Diner and @CarinaOst. Both experts in all that is food. My BH made up the fourth at our happy table, and once we were seated, we were off and exploring.

The meal began with combination of severa Primi.  We had a lovely California Burrata with Herbs & Hazelnuts. Served on a large slice of toast, it was easy to slice into and share. I found it creamy and the toppings selected really enhanced the rich fatty cream flavor of the cheese. Along with the Burrata we ordered a gorgeous Carpaccio of Waygu Beef and a Yellowtail Crudo. The beef  was a platter of lovely thin slices of Waygu beef, perfectly rare and smothered in shaved Parmagiano Reggiano. The seafood crudo was a platter instead of raw fish, delicate slices of Yellowtail tuna gently sprinkled with olive oil and herbs, a few black cherry slices and a few nuts for texture. The final appetizer was a lovely Pumpkin Agnolotti, a delightful dish of creamy, rich pasta with pumpkin seeds and cheese crumbled over it.

Lamb with tangerines
 After our various appetizers, we feasted on our Secondi(s), the Italian name for the main course. My most adventurous dining companion, @thedapperdiner ordered the Black Pudding. I tasted it, but am admittedly not completely into the more outrageous of dishes. Black Pudding, if you are unaware, is a sausage made of pork blood and fat cooked down into a semi-solid. I like to try some offal, but some tries are more successful than others. Though TDD is brave and adventurous, I found that while I enjoy a good platter of brains from time to time, this may have been above my pay grade. From there we moved on to the BH’s choice which was a Napa Valley Lamb dish, delightfully prepared. The exterior of the meat kissed by the smoky flavor of the grill, the inside moist and succulent. A few slices of tangerine and some pepper really set off the flavor of the meat. Another of our companions had a gorgeous Idaho Trout, fluffy white fish with a nice crispy skin buried beneath tiny bits of potato and pork. The Pork Trotter Burger was rich and fatty, and delicious.  The final main we enjoyed was a Pork Ravioli. Like the Pumpkin Agnolotti the pasta was house made, golden and perfectly al dente. All of the flavors were unique, perfectly balanced, each dish a portrait in artistry.

Pumpkin Agnolotti
 Just writing this up is making me want to get back there soon. Some places just resonate with me, a little like Italy. They vibrate with life and flavor. SPQR was an absolute delight, and though it has taken me some time to get around to writing about it, I think it’s time to make a return visit. Remembering the flavors and the company I shared it with makes me want to go back. Maybe next week. But isn’t that what life is all about?

Check it out for yourself, and Bon Appetito!

1911 Fillmore Street
San Francisco, CA 94115
(415) 771-7779

Follow them on Twitter @spqrfillmore

Table size: cramped seating, but space for dishes (very European)
Noise level: boisterous, not for the deaf
Cost: moderately expensive