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Sentimental journey

CATS HAVE NINE lives, supposedly, but how about restaurants? Is there any realistic limit on how many times a restaurant can be shut and reopened, with a new (or another) menu, chef, concept? Should there be? Our test case is Bruno's, the old Mission supper club the like of whose continual reinvention we've not seen since the heyday of the failed Gore presidential campaign 18 months ago.

The current incarnation of the just-reopened restaurant is as a kind of cut-rate pasta parlor, along the lines of Emmy's Spaghetti Shack. But of course when you've been all things to all people, as Bruno's more or less has done, there's bound to be an Italian skeleton in the closet somewhere; Bruno's tried an Italian menu, though a higher-end one, a few years ago, with a notable lack of success.

But the man in charge of the kitchen this time is Christopher Pastena, who's done some mighty fine work at Eastside West, his most recent gig. And his debut Bruno's menu includes many of those classic Italian dishes they always seemed to be whipping up in the Godfather movies: spaghetti Bolognese, fettuccine Alfredo, fritto misto. Dishes that are utterly familiar and yet never stale.

Price points are a buck or two above Emmy's, but all the pastas cost less than $10, and prices for the main dishes (chicken cacciatore, osso buco, cioppino) hover in the low teens, as Midwestern weather forecasters so often glumly announce about midwinter high temperatures.

The slight price premium buys you atmosphere. That's one thing Bruno's has always had. It must have crossed owner Jon Varnedoe's mind at some point to gut and rename the restaurant, if only to cast out the demons of all that reinvention. Yet Bruno's, a hoppin' place half a century ago, retains an authentic glimmer of those bygone days: the dim light, the wall of multicolored glass near the front door, the hemispherical, leathery banquettes, all of which add up to a restaurant design that does what restaurant design is supposed to do: evoke a feeling and a mood so that guests feel transported, are taken out of themselves.

I wonder if we aren't ready at last not merely for Bruno's lower prices and comfort-zone food but also for its retro air. The United States of 50 years ago was a distinctly more secure place than the nation in which we presently find ourselves. That doesn't mean today's Bruno's offers any kind of real protection against dread and disorder. But it might feel as if it does – and for an hour or two, that's good enough.

Paul Reidinger paulr@sfbg.com