Matt Accarino takes an inventive approach to Italian cuisine at SPQR

Kristin Hanes

SPQR, run by celebrity chef Matt Accarrino, takes a creative, inventive and unique approach to Italian food with items like smoked fettucine with bacon, sea urchin and quail egg on the menu.

I waited anxiously behind a black curtain in the vestibule of SPQR in San Francisco, wondering if I’d be lucky enough to snag a spot. This Michelin-starred, 45-seat restaurant had been high on my list for years, but a line snaked out the door whenever I walked by. That didn’t seem to be the case this Friday night, so I decided to test my chances and wait.

Executive Chef Matthew Accarrino.
Executive Chef Matthew Accarrino.

The acclaimed SPQR is run by celebrity chef Matt Accarrino (a 2014 Food & Wine Best New Chef and five-time James Beard Foundation “Best Chef West” finalist), who’s known for creating inventive, unique takes on Italian food.


The restaurant opened in 2007, and with items like smoked fettuccine with bacon, sea urchin and quail egg on the menu, I know I’d be in for heavenly fare. “We’ll see if we can fit you in at the bar,” the hostess said, “Just stand here for a bit.”

My boyfriend and I waited, jostled back and forth as the door swung open and closed. Customers with reservations were quietly led to their tables, and I watched with the slightest twinge of envy. A waiter bustled his way over to us, holding two sparkling glasses of Prosecco. “Here you are, thanks for waiting!” he said, handing us the complimentary drinks.

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Artichoke agnolotti. / All photos: Courtesy of SPQR.

In no time at all, we were perched on high-top chairs at the gently curved bar. We’d done it. We were about to eat at the famed SPQR, an acronym for, “Senatus Populusque Romanus,” which translates to “The People and Senate of Rome.” My eyes took in the incredible list of food on the menu, separated into three sections: antipasti, primi and secondi.

The bartender, knowledgeable and efficient, rattled out the specials as I sipped on a glass of dry, rich Italian wine. The menu was a smorgasbord of food combinations that lit all of my senses on fire.

garnet yam gnocchi beef and black garlic bolognese scotch kale and red wine bellavitano 39271287940 o 1
Garnet yam gnocchi beef and black garlic bolognese, scotch kale and red wine bellavitano.

SPQR has a farm-to-table approach, making all its pasta in-house. You’ll find San Francisco Bay’s seafood in primi plates with Dungeness crab, sea urchin and a squid ink mezze maniche with gulf shrimp, while secondi plates feature bacon-wrapped rabbit and baked apple, or a flavorful Sacramento sturgeon.

mushroom and root vegetable stufato burrata cheese and mushroom steamcake 40371021634 o 1
Mushroom and root vegetable stufato, burrata cheese and mushroom steamcake.

How would I ever choose? We settled on two appetizers: black-rice encrusted soft-shell crab and octopus with kale sprout, panissa, chickpeas and preserved lemons. In addition, we ordered two primi plates: hazelnut strozzapreti with lamb ragu made of marsala-braised lamb with wild foraged greens, topped with crushed hazelnuts and goat cheese, and the smoked fettuccine with sea urchin.

When the food arrived, I was speechless. It was perfectly-arranged on our plates, looking more like artwork than fine dining.

Smoked fettuccine with sea urchin and bacon.
Smoked fettuccine with sea urchin and bacon.

The flavors were delectable. I paused on each bite, letting the flavors mix in my mouth, savoring the complex, intricate tastes. SPQR was all I imagined, and more. The restaurant, with its intimate setting—walnut-topped tables matched with soft, black leather seats—is a favorite in San Francisco.

The popular bar counter, where we ate, serves the entire menu and customers interested in sitting at the chef’s counter can sip on wine and watch Matt Accarrino and his crew of talented chefs cook in a space smaller than 200-square feet. Be sure not to miss SPRQ next time you’re in San Francisco. Don’t forget to make a reservation. ■

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