275 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Like so many artifacts of Old San Diego, our representative of the Old Spaghetti Factory chain (estab. 1969) has passed into history. In its stead is an upscale stand-alone restaurant to fit the remade and yuppified lower Gaslamp. Under the direction of executive chef Earl Schryver (formerly of Laguna's Surf and Sand Resort), the fare is southern European, with higher ambitions and much (much!) higher prices than Ol' Spaghet'. But the heart of the restaurant hasn't changed. Now dubbed Dussini Mediterranean Bistro (after founder Gus Dussin), it might as well be called the New Spaghetti Factory -- or, more accurately, La Fattoria Nueva des Nouilles.
A bistro it is not. A bistro is a small, casual restaurant that expresses its owner's personality, whereas Dussini feels vast, impersonal, and corporate. Still, I like the new look. The interior of the 1898 building (designed by famed architect Irving Gill) has been restored to echo that era, with scrubbed brick walls, an imposing faux-Victorian chandelier dangling from the foyer ceiling, and a wine tower soaring rack upon rack to three stories. (No "wine angels" to fetch bottles, thanks be.) The space is divided into dining rooms on several levels, offering choices ranging from intimate and romantic (lower mezzanine) to bar-and-billiards (third floor). Downstairs, pendant spotlights illuminate the tables, so that you can see your food but not your companion's freckles. There is one hint of bistro insouciance: The polished wooden tables are covered with dark, heavy placemats rather than linens.
The menu, a metal-encased tome, covers the whole Euro-Mediterranean area, a collection of America's favorite dishes from Italy and Southern France, with touches of Spain, Greece, and Portugal. But night by night and dish by dish, the fare proves uneven.
For example, the hummus that comes with the bread assortment (from Bread & Cie) was thin and ordinary at our first visit, rich and delicious the next, while the accompanying Kalamata tapenade was foolproof.
My favorite starter, listed under "Beginnings," was "jumbo asparagus spears alla Milanese." Thick spears of sweet asparagus are lightly coated with Panko and Parmesan, dipped in the deep-fryer, and served with mellow roasted garlic aioli. (The spears reappear on numerous entrées, where -- grilled and served stark naked -- they're just as glorious.)
At our first visit we invited Sicily-born Provvidenza along as our "Italian expert." The Portuguese linguiça kale soup was her favorite, an earthy, complex mixture of greens and red potatoes in a chicken broth pervaded by the smoky flavor of sliced Portuguese sausage. This rendition isn't as weighty as the New Bedford supper entrée popularized by Emeril (Bam!) Lagasse, but it's just as engaging. At our next visit, with Mike and Scott, we tried the oyster bisque, an odd combination of fine-minced oysters and spinach in a heavy cream broth, with a little pouf of puff pastry afloat. "It's good, but where are the oysters?" asked Mike. No one could taste, much less see them. The soup resembled good creamed spinach, but with more cream than greens.
Where most chefs put crumbs (and usually too many) in the filling, here the crumbs are all on the outside, forming a crisp crust. I enjoyed the classic seasoning, but they're far from the best in town. Grape-leaf dolmas with a rice and onion stuffing were passable. "These are just a little better than the ones from the can," said Provvi, and I had to agree. Italian prosciutto, cantaloupe, and figs were a mixed blessing: The fruits were ripe and sweet, and two of the ham slices were thin, pink, and delicate. But the third slice was thick and dark from exposure to air, a tough, salty chew -- an end-piece fit for the soup pot, not the plate.
Two of our starters were barely acceptable. Dussini's version of bagna cauda is worse than inauthentic. It's a dull dip, good for office Christmas parties -- a cold, thick sludge of tuna-mayo purée with a smidgen of anchovy, surrounded by raw veggies and toast -- oops, crostini. "Bagna cauda means 'hot bath,'" Provvi said. "This is so far off, it's not even warm. Real bagna cauda is more like a fondue made from hot olive oil and anchovies, but this...it's the sauce for vitello tonatto -- veal with tuna sauce, hold the veal." We found the next visit's "mussels gratin" equally disappointing: The half-dozen green-lip mussels were dry, oven-crusted with Parmesan and a little herbed butter. The bivalves, plated atop a bed of rock salt and smelling like steam, had given all their liquid and flavor to the oven.
Pastas proved more reliable. Ragu alla Bolognese, the traditional hearty meat sauce, was close enough to bona fide that even Provvi approved, although we all lamented the use of commercial dry pappardelle rather than soft, freshly made pasta ribbons. Lobster ravioli had black-and-white striped skins, rather thick-rolled but also plumply stuffed. They came in a sauce of cream, roasted Roma tomatoes, and snipped fresh tarragon, filled out by a school of tiny bay shrimp, more a texture than a taste. "What are these -- krill?" mused Mike. But the dish is toothsome. Other pasta choices include spaghetti with seafood, penne with wild mushrooms and cream sauce, and a spaghetti Puttanesca that includes pine nuts but not (per the menu description) anchovy.
Our entrées sent us back aboard the roller coaster, with a few peaks and many deep dips. The high was a "Bouillabaisse alla [sic] Marseillaise," a rich seafood stew sized for sharing. This dish, at last, was reasonably authentic: The essence and joy of a bouillabaisse is the warming saffron-fennel-tomato seafood broth, and the chef got it right -- and served it properly with good rouille (red pepper aioli) spread on toast slices, to float atop the soup as a flavor-plus crouton. We didn't spot any of the lobster the menu boasted among the species in the soup -- but happily, we also found none of the advertised salmon, a coldwater fish that should play no part in this warm-sea dish.