WE'VE BEEN sold a bill of goods about the decade of the '50s, via our culture's prolific myth-making machinery. Most of the treasured imagery of that decade masks our culture's deep and dark secrets. But Lake City's warm and friendly Italian Spaghetti House, "family operated since 1957," carries on worthy dining traditions. Huge servings, spotless -- but not sterile! -- surroundings, and a no-nonsense waitstaff clad in comfortable shoes await adventurous customers eager to travel back to a time refreshingly free of pretense and overcharging.

This is the place to have a birthday party, take your baby, dine with your mom and dad, or relax with your friends. Mammoth-portioned offerings bulge with old-school flavors, providing enough leftover action for at least three subsequent lunches. The Italian Spaghetti House's reek of sincerity contrasts favorably with the hellish ambience of the mysteriously popular Buca di Beppo establishments. That chain delivers a thoroughly fraudulent environment, complete with phony, amateur, cardboard characters dripping with cynicism and insincerity. The Italian Spaghetti House ought to run a training in-service for Beppo, and show the little boys and girls how the pros do it. These are food-service professionals, with little interest in becoming your friend.

Having a difficult time choosing between pizza or tempting pasta entrées? At these prices, you can choose both, as my companions and I do. The restaurant's high-protein, high-gluten, unbleached flour produces a soft and yielding crust, more closely related to Pagliacci than Pizza Hut. Our 13" half pepperoni and mushroom, half sausage and mushroom ($10.75) features the always controversial canned mushrooms: Their spongy, springy texture and mild flavor add a marked contrast to the salty, thin-sliced pepperoni and small chunks of sagey sausage. Everyday fare? Hardly. But as a part of a well-balanced diet, canned mushrooms and pepperoni can taste godly.

Spaghetti with Meatballs ($12.25), Linguine with choice of Red or White Clam Sauce ($13, we chose red ), and Baked Stuffed Lasagna ($12.25) all come with house-made minestrone soup, crowded with recently chopped vegetables, pasta, and kidney beans, and spiced generously with oregano. Big loaves of fresh Gai's French bread add little taste, but serve nicely as mouth-escorts for the bright red sauces. The spaghetti's beefy globes mock the commonly heard complaint that meatballs don't really belong with spaghetti. The stuffed lasagna oozes and drips with six layers of meat and cheese, filling a platter the size of a small lap pool. Half of it is plenty, and you've got lunch the next day (or two). Mildly assertive, the red clam sauce's finely chopped clams initially cause concern. Why are the pieces so small? Ingestion, however, reveals the saucing logic of the kitchen. Clams frequently taste isolated and unattached to sauces, a problem wholly rectified by fine chopping, allowing the bivalve's flavor to spread and absorb evenly, the same way that finely chopped garlic has a much stronger flavor than larger pieces.

Describing the Italian Spaghetti House as "kitschy" would be missing the point. Modern-day kitsch is self-conscious and purposeful; instead, the restaurant's decoration appears to be based on traditional principles of suburban home decorating. A stunningly ornate ceramic gondola looms but a few feet over our heads. This is no ordinary gondola: At one end stands the gondolier, strangely missing his oar. Seated below, a male passenger resembles a cross between Mozart and George Washington, holding a dove as he serenades fellow passenger Elly May Clampett. Sponge-painted walls, portions of which are meant to look like an outdoor European garden, defy logic. Burgundy tablecloths are changed for every new dining party, creating a clean and dignified eating surface, further bolstering the professional feel of the House.

The waitstaff has answers for all questions, and are quick to remedy any problem. After our focused and businesslike server knocks over and spills our wine bottle, she produces another and has it open before we can blink. We're spared a big apology, receiving instead efficient, cut-to-the-chase service. There is no gratuitous lingering, chatting, or other superfluous and empty hob-nobbing. In a city where servers commonly compliment customers on their selections, this is a refreshing change. Numerous large Saturday-night parties amass simultaneously at the restaurant, and are, by all indications, met with calm, brisk, unmannered service, symbolized by our servers' succinct inquiry to an adjoining table: "Wine? Coffee? Pepsi?" Such a simple beverage triad reminds us of the difference between dumb nostalgia and the Italian Spaghetti House's simple, anachronistic grace.

Italian Spaghetti House

9824 Lake City Way NE, 523-2667. Mon-Sat 4:30 to 10:30 pm, Sun 4:30 to 10 pm. Beer and wine. $$.

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-20; $$$ = $20 and up