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Dussini Mediterranean Bistro

Photo by Brevin Blach

THERE WAS A DAY when downtown’s Old Spaghetti Factory was strictly a family affair. A downtown pioneer—the Spaghetti Factory was Gaslamp Quarter before the Gaslamp became cool—the restaurant reigned for roughly 30 years as a dependable place for Mom and Dad to take the kids for spaghetti, meatballs and a cheap night out. It truly was, as a friend guiltily confided, “the only place downtown where they don’t glare at you if your kid throws food on the floor.”

Fast-forward to November 2005—and a transformation worthy of Clark Kent. Welcome to the gorgeous new Dussini Mediterranean Bistro, born of a massive makeover that started with the building’s original bricks and carried through to the rafters—not to mention the menu, the service and the restaurant’s target clientele.

Dussini (a play on the founding family’s name, Dussin) has been reinvented for a new millennium of conventioneers, downtown residents, Padres fans and others seeking Gaslamp good times. Families are still welcome—witness the joke-filled menu just for kids—but the dramatic new décor and brilliant multilevel space topped off with a bar and billiards room clearly cater to adults.

So does the fare—an ambitious blend of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and other influences meant to reflect San Diego’s multicultural roots. Seen classic Portuguese kale soup on a local menu lately? Neither have I. The version here is divine, leafy with fresh greens and abundantly flavored with garlicky linguica sausage ($3.50).

It’s joined on the starter lineup by a superb seafood “martini” (a lime-laced ceviche of tender calamari, tiny scallops and shrimp, served in an oversized stemmed glass for $10.50), meaty Dungeness crab cakes in a crisp, lighthanded crust ($12.50) and simple but satisfying salads such as spinach with prosciutto ($8.95). These and other appetizers can serve as light entrées, especially since a brimming bread basket accompanied by olive spread and hummus dip comes with your order.

Entrée-wise, the closest you’ll get to spaghetti and meatballs now is the mellow, long-simmered beef and pork Bolognese sauce tossed with wide pappardelle noodles ($13.95). It’s satisfying, but better dishes include the fantastic monkfish medallions sauced with complementary hints of Pernod and tarragon ($18.95) and the grilled lamb chops (a bit pricy at $29.95), delivered medium rare as requested and brushed with garlic and herbs.

The roasted pork tenderloin ($17.95) paired with sumptuous grilled portabella mushrooms was also a highlight, although the pesto mashed potatoes that accompanied both the pork and the lamb arrived cold.

And speaking of things that left us cold, what’s with making paella ($19.95) using orzo pasta instead of rice? All those lovely ingredients—the briny fresh mussels and succulent white shrimp, the earthy linguica, the tender nuggets of chicken and pork—were wasted on the slippery pasta pellets, which refused to absorb a hint of saffron flavor. Even our server seemed faintly ashamed.

Apparently the kitchen has an aversion to rice; osso buco ($25.95) and roast duck ($19.50) also come with orzo, though you can request gnocchi or potatoes instead.

COME DESSERT, we brightened with the arrival of three plump profiteroles stuffed with vanilla ice cream (though skimpy on the chocolate sauce) and a classic cheesecake with buttery graham-cracker crust ($6.95 each). The menu also lists eight other sugary finishers.

And we were delighted with the upscale wine service—order wine by the glass and it’s poured at your table, giving you a look at the label and vintage and the chance to request a small taste first. If you’re having seafood, the perfect match is a Las Brisas Rueda, an herbaceous, entrancing Spanish white ($6.75). On the red side, user-friendly quaffs include the Avalon Napa Cabernet ($7.75) and the Antinori Sangiovese ($7.25).

Cocktails like the lime fizz are well-made and fairly priced, though the menu descriptions sound downright tipsy. Take this ode to the mango mojito: “I hear the screaming Padres fans. Mangos! Mangos! they demand.” Fine. Whatever.

The river of ice that winds through the U-shaped stone bar upstairs is a cool-looking gimmick (though our bartender cautioned that stemmed glasses tend to stick and could spill or break when picked up). Upstairs is also home to six pool tables, which you can rent by the hour, as well as numerous easy chairs, flat-screen televisions and cozy little cocktail tables overlooking a wall-length fireplace.

In addition to the main-floor dining area, furnished with half-circle booths and sturdy wood tables, there’s a mezzanine that’s perfect for semi-private parties, and a lower-level “cellar” where smaller parties can be seated. (On an evening when shrieking children raced endlessly around their parents’ table in the main room, this retreat was a blessing indeed.)

The crowd is casually dressed, for the most part, and the young serving staff is friendly and enthusiastic, if not particularly polished yet. This isn’t a formal dining experience by any means, and it’s not for the crowd that craves expensive bottle service and doormen out front. But it’s fun, there’s easy parking right around the corner at Sixth and K, and we wish this updated site another 30 years of success.

Dussini Mediterranean Bistro serves lunch and dinner daily at 275 Fifth Avenue, downtown. Contact info: 619-233-4323; dussini.com.

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