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A Roman Holiday on Fillmore

SPQR. Itís an esoteric name and not even close to snappy, being the abbreviation of Senatus Populusque Romanus (the Senate and the Roman People). Despite a few ho-hum reports from foodie civilians in the field, with the culinary darlings of A16 behind the venture and the concomitant buzz that started months before its Fall 2007 opening, SPQR has found ringing success in the old Chez Nous space in San Francisco's upper Fillmore district.

Nate Applebaum (A16, Rising Star Chef 2007) has turned his attention to the region of Lazio, just north of Campania (A16ís inspiration), with the capital city of Rome. The cuisine focuses on simplicity, letting the high-quality ingredients shine. Seasonal vegetables, simply prepared pastas, and rustic meat dishes make up the small, but satisfying menu.

And yes, star sommelier Shelly Lindgren is behind the wine list. For SPQR, she has created a highly refined tour of Italian wines that focus on indigenous varietals and traditional styles, at a great value (nothing over $100 on a recent visit). With 30 wines offered by the taste, glass or half-carafe, sampling is encouraged, and the knowledgeable staff is willing to help guide you.

The team rounds out with A16 designer Greg Lindgren, who has created a comfortable (if slightly pedestrian) neighborhood space with freestanding tables and bar seating -- no booths or banquettes. Off-white walls, dark wood wainscoting and candle wall sconces set a soft room in which the centerpiece is a marble-topped bar, arguably the most elegant place to sit, despite the backless stools.

We started a recent meal with a selection of five antipasti ($28). Pumpkin and red onion sottíolio (under oil) gratified with the ever-alluring combination of sweet and savory. Chanterelles and sunchokes were a great earthy combination full of lush textures. House-made pork sausage served with hash made from lentils, onions and peppers was hearty and flavorful.

But the tableís favorite was the borlotti and butter beans with pork soffritto. Chef Appelbaum has a way with pork products, and this soffritto was just the right mixture of tangy and spicy with the starchy beans. And because we couldnít resist fried cheese, we opted for the fried mozzarella bocconcini with tomato sauce, which unfortunately lacked flavor and wasnít hot and gooey enough.

For entrees, we shared the cannelloni with pork shoulder ($13). The pasta was light and crepe-like, stuffed with tasty pork shoulder and sauced with a bright, simple tomato sauce, just like grandma would make.

The gnocchi alla romana ($14) with pork and chanterelle ragu was a bit heavy and mashed potato-like even though they were semolina gnocchi. Good flavors, but just too dense and doughy for our tastes. However we were all won over by the calamari with rapini and ceci beans ($17). The tender, local calamari and the slightly bitter rapini were perfectly highlighted by a zesty lemon-garlic sauce.

We finished our meal with some of the most unique desserts any of us have encountered in quite some time. Panino with caramelized milk, pears, shaved chocolate and sea salt ($7) was a foodie twist on a peanut butter and banana sandwich -- creamy, sweet and savory all in one. The almond milk granita with espresso crema ($7) was a bit perplexing at first, but the airy, barely-there granita melted as soon as it hit your tongue and mixed with the rich crema to make a satisfying mouthful of nutty, coffee goodness.

While the order of the letters will most likely slip your mind, nothing about the food or impeccable service will.

Pacific Heights

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