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The New Spaghetti Factory

Place

Old Spaghetti Factory

275 Fifth Avenue, 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.)

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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.

A USDA Prime New York steak is a safe choice. Scott ordered it medium, and so it arrived, but it continued cooking on the plate to well-done. (It would be better ordered rare, given the pedigreed meat.) The topping of minced green olives and lemon-garlic butter was piquant, and alongside were those luscious asparagus spears, sweet chunky carrots, and pesto mashed potatoes prettily striated in waves but tasting dry and starchy. "Monkfish alla [sic again] Niçoise" is another decent bet if you like this fish. Monkfish is a stalwart of the bouillabaisse bowl and is often called "poor man's lobster" -- more for texture than taste. "The flavor is a little muddy," Provvi said, cautiously sampling it for the first time. Indeed, it's an ugly-faced bottom feeder that used to be considered a trash fish (which is why the fishwives of Marseilles threw it into their stew). Dussini serves it with a pleasant, salty sauce of capers, Kalamata olives, white wine, and fresh tomatoes, sparked by the anise flavor of Pernod. Alongside are a bit of ratatouille and a couple of hollowed-out boiled red potatoes filled with crème fraîche and snipped chives. The tepid spuds, undercooked, tasted as if they'd spent a night in the fridge.

A step further down the food chain are "scallops alla Parma," sautéed jumbo scallops of a clean but bland flavor and rubbery texture, wrapped with prosciutto and dressed in a light tomato sauce with capers, lemon, and fresh herbs, with another asparagus garnish. They're served on a buttered bed of rice-shaped, saffron-seasoned orzo pasta that was slightly overcooked.

"Paella Español" is one of the restaurant's signature dishes. Dussini's rendition includes shrimp, mussels, linguiça, and dry chicken breast chunks, plus green peas and diced carrots. In one major respect, it's neither paella nor español: The kitchen takes the easy way out by replacing rice with that easy-to-cook, mushy orzo, a poor idea because slick, round pasta grains don't absorb oil or seasonings. (Catalans do make a pasta paella, but they use fideo -- thin, rough-grained noodles that do drink up juices.) At the bottom of the pan, instead of a pleasing rice crust, we encountered an oil slick. Worse, the oil tasted cheap. The portion is large enough for at least two. We four didn't even make a dent.

"Duck con crosta di nolce" -- a half roast duck crusted with pulverized walnuts -- has sugar in the crust, the cause of its undoing. When our fowl was reheated under the broiler, the sugar burned, over-caramelizing into sweet black tar. The meat was dry and shreddy. It came with another repeat of the orzo, and with a vibrant pear chutney, the sole appetizing substance on the plate.

This wasn't our worst entrée -- two other dishes vied for that distinction. A saltimbocca offered overcooked, chewy slices of veal and tough prosciutto in a Marsala sauce with a medicinal overdose of fresh sage -- a "whoof!" sort of taste. Couched in an open pastry shell atop a bed of grated Mizithra cheese were a handful of small oval gnocchi with a weight and flavor closer to miniature potato knishes than to anything Italian.

The veal's rival in culinary iniquity was another house signature dish, "lobster macaroni and cheese." The menu trumpets, "Over  1/2 pound of lobster with a sharp white cheddar cheese sauce, flavored with truffle oil." "I was expecting a crust on top," murmured Provvi, disappointed at the sauce's gluey consistency. "Where's the lobster?" asked Mike (who loves Terra's rendition of this dish), when we retasted it to see if it was really as bad as we thought. None of us could perceive a trace of crustacean. My partner compared the flavor to off-brand instant mac'n'cheese, and I found the truffle oil not only a wrong note but stale-tasting. And the sauce was salted beyond reason.

The wine list, however, is a joy to explore, dipping into France, Spain, and Italy, as well as California. Among the many affordable choices, we enjoyed a Moulin Au Vent Beaujolais that's beautifully suited to light Mediterranean cooking, and a sturdy, mellow Alsatian Pinot Blanc with the power to go one on one with the richest seafood. The liberal corkage policy -- the first two bottles free -- is of interest if your home cellar needs thinning, particularly in light of the excellent (if super-rich) cheese plate here. It included a sweet Gorgonzola, a Cambazola, a triple creme, and an English blue, all served at cool room temperature and mature enough to become a bit runny as they warmed. These came with wonderful caramelized fennel, crackers, and house-made toasted walnut sweet-bread.

The desserts include a sampler plate, with all the choices also available as solos. The best is a Scharffen Berger chocolate mousse, light and elegant with a deep, dark-chocolate flavor. Panna cotta is of medium lightness and quite sweet for this normally restrained dessert. The crème brulée is standard, as is the raspberry sorbet. The tiramisù (which means "pick me up") was much like the bland rendition we tasted last week at the Palm, too short on coffee to pick anybody up and lacking any perceptible liqueur for the final spark.

The service at Dussini goes beyond considerate toward anxious hovering: Seconds after delivering each course, a server returns to ask, "Is your [dish name] all right?" -- as if you'd tell her the truth!

This isn't a bad restaurant, but it serves some bad dishes, along with a handful of highly satisfactory ones. The "star-rating" for everything we tasted averaged out to a two, but on second thought -- with three entrées out of eight earning one star or less -- it's too risky to call the restaurant "good." Not only does the cooking need fine-tuning, but some ingredients need upgrading (particularly the seafood and the oils) if Dussini is to overcome its feed-all-comers Old Spaghetti aura. The prices are nearly three times as high (the average entrée runs $22, compared to $8), so the food needs to be at least twice as good.

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Place

Old Spaghetti Factory

275 Fifth Avenue, 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.)

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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.

A USDA Prime New York steak is a safe choice. Scott ordered it medium, and so it arrived, but it continued cooking on the plate to well-done. (It would be better ordered rare, given the pedigreed meat.) The topping of minced green olives and lemon-garlic butter was piquant, and alongside were those luscious asparagus spears, sweet chunky carrots, and pesto mashed potatoes prettily striated in waves but tasting dry and starchy. "Monkfish alla [sic again] Niçoise" is another decent bet if you like this fish. Monkfish is a stalwart of the bouillabaisse bowl and is often called "poor man's lobster" -- more for texture than taste. "The flavor is a little muddy," Provvi said, cautiously sampling it for the first time. Indeed, it's an ugly-faced bottom feeder that used to be considered a trash fish (which is why the fishwives of Marseilles threw it into their stew). Dussini serves it with a pleasant, salty sauce of capers, Kalamata olives, white wine, and fresh tomatoes, sparked by the anise flavor of Pernod. Alongside are a bit of ratatouille and a couple of hollowed-out boiled red potatoes filled with crème fraîche and snipped chives. The tepid spuds, undercooked, tasted as if they'd spent a night in the fridge.

A step further down the food chain are "scallops alla Parma," sautéed jumbo scallops of a clean but bland flavor and rubbery texture, wrapped with prosciutto and dressed in a light tomato sauce with capers, lemon, and fresh herbs, with another asparagus garnish. They're served on a buttered bed of rice-shaped, saffron-seasoned orzo pasta that was slightly overcooked.

"Paella Español" is one of the restaurant's signature dishes. Dussini's rendition includes shrimp, mussels, linguiça, and dry chicken breast chunks, plus green peas and diced carrots. In one major respect, it's neither paella nor español: The kitchen takes the easy way out by replacing rice with that easy-to-cook, mushy orzo, a poor idea because slick, round pasta grains don't absorb oil or seasonings. (Catalans do make a pasta paella, but they use fideo -- thin, rough-grained noodles that do drink up juices.) At the bottom of the pan, instead of a pleasing rice crust, we encountered an oil slick. Worse, the oil tasted cheap. The portion is large enough for at least two. We four didn't even make a dent.

"Duck con crosta di nolce" -- a half roast duck crusted with pulverized walnuts -- has sugar in the crust, the cause of its undoing. When our fowl was reheated under the broiler, the sugar burned, over-caramelizing into sweet black tar. The meat was dry and shreddy. It came with another repeat of the orzo, and with a vibrant pear chutney, the sole appetizing substance on the plate.

This wasn't our worst entrée -- two other dishes vied for that distinction. A saltimbocca offered overcooked, chewy slices of veal and tough prosciutto in a Marsala sauce with a medicinal overdose of fresh sage -- a "whoof!" sort of taste. Couched in an open pastry shell atop a bed of grated Mizithra cheese were a handful of small oval gnocchi with a weight and flavor closer to miniature potato knishes than to anything Italian.

The veal's rival in culinary iniquity was another house signature dish, "lobster macaroni and cheese." The menu trumpets, "Over  1/2 pound of lobster with a sharp white cheddar cheese sauce, flavored with truffle oil." "I was expecting a crust on top," murmured Provvi, disappointed at the sauce's gluey consistency. "Where's the lobster?" asked Mike (who loves Terra's rendition of this dish), when we retasted it to see if it was really as bad as we thought. None of us could perceive a trace of crustacean. My partner compared the flavor to off-brand instant mac'n'cheese, and I found the truffle oil not only a wrong note but stale-tasting. And the sauce was salted beyond reason.

The wine list, however, is a joy to explore, dipping into France, Spain, and Italy, as well as California. Among the many affordable choices, we enjoyed a Moulin Au Vent Beaujolais that's beautifully suited to light Mediterranean cooking, and a sturdy, mellow Alsatian Pinot Blanc with the power to go one on one with the richest seafood. The liberal corkage policy -- the first two bottles free -- is of interest if your home cellar needs thinning, particularly in light of the excellent (if super-rich) cheese plate here. It included a sweet Gorgonzola, a Cambazola, a triple creme, and an English blue, all served at cool room temperature and mature enough to become a bit runny as they warmed. These came with wonderful caramelized fennel, crackers, and house-made toasted walnut sweet-bread.

The desserts include a sampler plate, with all the choices also available as solos. The best is a Scharffen Berger chocolate mousse, light and elegant with a deep, dark-chocolate flavor. Panna cotta is of medium lightness and quite sweet for this normally restrained dessert. The crème brulée is standard, as is the raspberry sorbet. The tiramisù (which means "pick me up") was much like the bland rendition we tasted last week at the Palm, too short on coffee to pick anybody up and lacking any perceptible liqueur for the final spark.

The service at Dussini goes beyond considerate toward anxious hovering: Seconds after delivering each course, a server returns to ask, "Is your [dish name] all right?" -- as if you'd tell her the truth!

This isn't a bad restaurant, but it serves some bad dishes, along with a handful of highly satisfactory ones. The "star-rating" for everything we tasted averaged out to a two, but on second thought -- with three entrées out of eight earning one star or less -- it's too risky to call the restaurant "good." Not only does the cooking need fine-tuning, but some ingredients need upgrading (particularly the seafood and the oils) if Dussini is to overcome its feed-all-comers Old Spaghetti aura. The prices are nearly three times as high (the average entrée runs $22, compared to $8), so the food needs to be at least twice as good.

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