Giveaway Alert! Leave a comment at the end of the post by December 31st listing the most adventurous recipe you've ever tried, and you'll automatically be entered for a chance to win the new SPQR cookbook!
As the executive chef at one of San Francisco's hottest eatery, SPQR (an acronym for Senatus Populesque Romanus, translating to "The People and Senate of Rome"), Matthew Accarrino has managed to bring a little piece of traditional Italy to Northern California. His inspiration? The tiny village of Labico, situated just outside of Rome, where Matthew worked after graduating from culinary school. It was there that he trained at the Michelin-rated restaurant Antonello Colonna, getting hands-on business experience and developing his passion for locally grown and authentic ingredients.
His love for all things local continues to be his trademark today, fusing Northern California ingredients with the rich, rustic flavors of Italy. After stints working under some of America's most highly-regarded chefs like Todd English, Rick Moonen, Thomas Keller, and Tom Colicchio, he partnered with wine expert Shelley Lindgren for his first solo debut as head chef at SPQR. Since then, his success has been fast and furious. In his latest venture, he shares some of his best culinary secrets in the cookbook, SPQR. (Bonus: Shelley, SPQR's resident wine pro, gives amazing wine tips and pairings rarely found in a cookbook.)
Photo by: Frankie Frankeny
We sat down with Matthew and Shelley to get some of their best-kept foodie secrets for cooking up delicious, crowd-pleasing fare and finding the perfect vintage.
CULTIVATE: If you could design your perfect home kitchen, what would it look like?
Matthew: Actually, it would look a lot like a restaurant kitchen. In fact, a lot of the things that end up being part of people's dream kitchens come from professional kitchens. Many of the top appliance manufacturers are now taking cues from professional chefs and then making those things accessible to the residential market. For me, it’s all based on a level of convenience to get the job done the best way possible. I would design the space on a curb, which means there would be no gaps underneath the base of the cabinets so no food could fall underneath. I'd also like a nice heavy-duty floor like concrete or stone, and stainless-steel surfaces and appliances. It’s all about efficiency in cooking, cleaning, space, and layout. Having a wood-top work table, plenty of counter space and more than one oven would also be a plus.
CULTIVATE: What are some specific elements you would take from a restaurant kitchen's design and use in your own home?
Matthew: Certainly a large, multi-compartment sink. Also, my Vitamix blender. I don’t think I could cook without it, even in my kitchen at home. Having a gas or induction stove and the right pots and pans also makes a big difference.
Shelley: Sometimes it's the simple things that make the most difference. My husband is a bartender and I've seen him make hundereds of mojitios and margaritas. We can't live without our color-coded lemon and lime juicers. When I was away on a wine tasting trip to Italy he reorganized all of my spices that had been adding up. He put them in small labeled glass jars and built shelves on the inside of my cabinet doors so I don't have to continue to fumble through my cabinets.
CULTIVATE: In your opinion, what's the difference between a good kitchen and a great kitchen?
Matthew: For me, it's all about space. If you’re cramped trying to work in a narrow corner between your refrigerator and your sink, you can’t get anything done. You need space to spread out and more than one oven so you can cook foods at different temperatures simultaneously. A great kitchen would have a large work top in the center of the kitchen for rolling out pasta dough and having plenty of prep space. You also need a high-powered gas stove to sauté and sear meats.
CULTIVATE: You’ve done lots of traveling in your culinary journey, especially to Italy. How has that influenced the the way you approach cooking?
Shelley: I have a saying, "if it grows together it goes together," so I like to pick wines that go with foods specific to that region. I always think of a sense of place when making a dish. How are you cooking it? What do you want to highlight in the dish?
Matthew: In Italy, they would never dream of buying store-bought pasta—everything is homemade. At the restaurant, we make almost everything that we use from scratch. Fresh, local ingredients are my main influence in the way that I cook. Flavor wise, there is something that is soulful and rustic with Italian food and being mindful in creating the flavors. I want my food to feel comforting, good, and nourishing, regardless of the aesthetic.
Matthew and Shelley's San Francisco restaurant, SPQR. Photo by: Ed Anderson
CULTIVATE: What are your go-to’s when hosting a party that any at-home cook could pull off?
Matthew: Wine wise, I always go for something with bubbles. When you’re entertaining you have to have something that sparkles. I especially love prosecco because it’s light and refreshing. When I’m entertaining, I love food that I can pre-make, like lasagna, so I can spend more time with guests and less time preparing the meal. It’s also important to keep it comfortable and not too formal. Setting up a meal as family-style instead of a formal plated dinner makes things more laid-back and much easier. There’s an elegance in simplicity. Heaps of different napkins, napkin rings, fancy glassware—those things make people feel uncomfortable. I always say that it’s better to under design.
CULTIVATE: A lot of people are intimidated by a professional chef’s recipes. It can feel a little “out of our league.” What’s your favorite recipe in your new cookbook, SPQR, that even the amateur chef could perfect?
Matthew: I try to focus on technique over individual recipes. One that seems really chef-y and difficult, but is actually quite easy, is our farrow stuffed quail. It seems so intimidating but you can get a de-boned quail that requires no butchering, stuff it with a simple mixture and that’s it. Plus, it’s very versatile. I change the stuffing seasonally: peas and mint in spring, sundried tomatoes and eggplant for summer, and persimmon and chestnuts for fall. When you find a recipe that has varying techniques you can use, it doesn't feel so daunting.
CULTIVATE: You're one of the most decorated "next generation" sommeliers, gaining recognition and accolades from publications such as Gourmet, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, and The James Beard Foundation. What is your go-to red and white wine?
Shelley: I go through phases and sometimes weather or time of year effect what I like. For whites, I love Verdicchio from the Le Marche region of Italy. It has the richer side that's great for the Chardonnay lovers but is still really crisp and rich at the same time. You won’t be disappointed. For red, I like Nero d’Avola from Sicily because it has a nice depth of fruit. Because this variety is from the largest island in Europe, you can spend anywhere from $5 to $100 on a Nero d'Avola and find quality in all of them. It’s great for bitter greens this time of year like kale or chard. There’s a chocoloate covered cherry flavor and beautiful dusty quality that get more of a spice that’s perfect for this time of year. It’s very festive. Because you’re entertaining lots and giving wine as gifts, this one is perfect because a Cab or Pinot lover will both enjoy it.
CULTIVATE: It can be daunting trying to find a great bottle of wine at a wine store. What are your top tips for getting a good bottle when shopping?
Shelley: Just because a bottle is expensive doesn't mean it's better. Look for smaller producers and wineries rather than mass-producced ones because you can taste when a wine has been hand-crafted. I want one that has charater and personality. It should be ejoyable. It can be hard to express what you want to the salesperson. There is such a huge range of flavors when it comes to varieties of wine. Instead of saying, "I like White Burgundy," use descriptive words like 'acid' or 'dry'.
CULTIVATE: What is your favorite wine to bring to a dinner party?
Shelley: I have a soft spot for Nebbiolo. It’s grown in the Northwest part of Italy, Lombard and Baroloi; you can find it from inexpensive to very expensive. I think it’s nice to bring this time of year because it goes with so many kinds of foods, so you don't have to worry about it pairing well with your host's menu.
CULTIVATE: Tis the season for gift-giving. What is the best wine-lover gift?
Shelley: My wine glasses break so often that I usually end up with mix-matched collection. Most people have everyday glasses so I think it's nice to give them a good set. Riedel has a sommelier series (link) that's amazing. I took George Riedel’s class and found what a difference the right glass makes to the flavor of each wine. When you’re tasting wine, about 75 percent is smell and the right glass will enhance that. Each wine should hit your palate at a specific place for you to get the full flavor. If you have the wrong glass, it will go straight down your throat and you'll miss the experience.
Matthew's Dream Kitchen List:
Countertops: Dark Granite
Backsplash: Stainless-steel tile
Flooring: Oversized masonry stone tiles (show Courtney Cox's house)
Must-Have Appliance: Vitamix
Splurge: Poly-science circulator (so I could do crazy stuff in the kitchen)
Save: Knobs and hardware (they can look just as good as the pricey version)