FOR GABRIELLA Cantoni, a meal without wine is like a day without sunshine. After all, she is Italian and grew up with this tradition. Even more to the point, she is a wine merchant who has been using her considerable energy and enthusiasm to instill an appreciation here for the high quality wines of her native land.

But she also believes in restraint. When guests come to the Cantonis' home, a comfortable ranch-style house in a wooded Bethesda setting, they do not have to steel themselves for a Bacchanalian revel. "I don't like having too many wines," she said, "it dulls the palate. Furthermore, Italian wines are meant to be drunk with food and my husband and I don't care to eat too many courses."

Not that Italian hospitality suffers in translation. After aperitifs, the Cantonis will serve a pasta or risotto, a main course, cheese and dessert. In all likelihood three different wines will be served along the way.

The dining room itself manages to serve as a showcase for family pieces (a sideboard from Venice, candelsticks and door panels from the 16th and 17th centuries among them) without becoming a museum. The Cantonis are too vibrant to allow this to happen. Furthermore, new traditions and roles have been carved out in the New World.

Guilio Cantoni arrived here first. A distinguished biochemist, he is senior laboratory chief at the National Institutes of Mental Health. As his wife tells it, the two met in Naples during a conference of the International Genetic Institute where she was doing public relations work. Soon thereafter, they married, and she moved to Bethesda in 1965.

Cooking had not been part of her girlhood upbringing in Turin. A jealous family cook had kept everyone else away from the stove and possible access to her recipes. "I thought I would live my life eating salads and cheese," Gabriella Cantoni recalled, "but my husband said, 'You will learn to cook in America.' And I did."

She works in a small kitchen that looks like many others except for a marble slab (for rolling out pastry and pasta) and a beautifully arranged basket of fresh fruit. The cookbooks gathered there reflect her bilingual approach. La Cucina Rustica Regionale stands near "Joy of Cooking" and a work by Julia Child.

"I don't invent recipes," Gabriella Cantoni announced. "I learn them. I use a lot of wine and lemon, parsley and garlic. I don't use spices, except mace. I try to tell friends that Italians don't use many spices, but they don't believe me. We eat a lot of chicken. The children (daughters Allegra, 14, and Serena, 12) are very American in their taste. My husband likes to eat well, so sometimes we have 'hotel' dinners. The kids will eat one thing and we will eat something else."

Guilio Cantoni isn't one to just sit back and wait for the foods and wines he loves to be served. He does the cooking and carving of legs of lamb and roast ducks as well as boned turkey with a filling of chicken pate. Bottles from his cellar became the basis for much of Gabriella's education in fine French wines and his contacts as an amateur musician and music lover have brought such luminaries as Rudolf Serkin and Jean Pierre Rampal into the Cantoni home for post-concert suppers.

Perhaps because they feel so strongly that wine is meant to be a social beverage and performs best in company with food, they avoid most of the rituals dear to wine snobs. At their home, all red wine is opened and decanted into a colorful pottery jug or glass decanters only a short time before it is served.

One game in which the Cantonis indulge would be unusual for those outside the wine trade. "Three or four nights a week we drink wine at dinner blind. Either my husband selects and decants it for me, or I do so for him, or the girls pick a bottle and we taste and compare our reaction. That's the best exercise to learn about wines, I think, not that we guess all the time. Once the children had a good laugh. They served us our own wine and we didn't recognize it."

Ever the scientist, Dr. Cantoni has spent long hours planting and improving the vineyards at Cispiano, the Chianti Classico estate the couple bought in 1972. They spent summers there, enough it hardly rates as a vacation between work in the vineyards and Gabriella's efforts to pry loose fine wines from other Italian winemakers to ship to the United States. Her company, Alseca (a compound of the two children's names), was launched in 1974. "Gabriella Selection" wines -- most of them new to Washington -- can now be found in many restaurants and wine shops.

Being a wine importer ought to be enough for a mother of two. But it's not. Gabriella Cantoni also works fulltime at the National Institutes of Health, as an information analyst.

One of her prize possessions is a prayer holder, which looks like a small silver hand mirror without the glass. At the beginning of their marriage, the Cantonis began to write out the menu whatever company was coming, insert the menu card in the prayer holder and circulate it among the guests. After the meal, the card was pasted into a book. They now have three volumes, recording dinners and guest and wines.

The first card illustrates her novice status as a cook and Guilio Cantoni's prejudice toward French wines in 1965. The meal was roasted chicken with creamed potatoes, zucchini, a salad of raw vegetables and fresh fruit compote. The wines were 1957 Ducru Beaucaillou and Lanson Brut champagne.

"Until 1972," Gabriella says, "I think you will find only a few Italian wines." That has changed, of course. Now Italian wines are featured (and not merely wines she imports). A dinner for eight last month began with a splendid risotto and the wine used in the risotto, Teroldego Rotaliano, Barone de Cles, 1977. Then came a leg of lamb cooked in the style of venison with braised red cabbage. The accompanying wine was 1971 Pulignano by Bibbiani. Another red, a lively 1978 Vignarey from Gaja, was served with stilton cheese. Following Guilio Cantoni's zabaglione, Grappa di Barolo, Distilleria Albere, an Italian brandy, was offered with coffee.

It was a satifying meal, though Gabriella Cantoni claims neither food nor wine by itself can insure the success of a dinner party. "What is important," she says, "is to have the right food with the right people with the right wine. You need all three."

Here is the recipe for the risotto she prepared.It calls for red wine, traditionally a Barolo or Barbera. If no one is watching, a full-bodied jug zinfandel could be substituted. The recipe is intended for six to eight, but Americans tend to eat far less of this rice dish, especially if it is served as a first course. GABRIELLA'S RISOTTO (12 to 16 first-course-servings) 10 tablespoons butter 1/2 cup good quality olive oil 1 medium onion, minced 2 cups dry red wine 16 handfuls rice (imported Italian recommended) 3 quarts of beef bouillon (about) Parmesan cheese, grated, at least 1 cup Salt

Heat 1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter with the olive oil in a heavy pan. When hot, add onion and cook slowly until onion is golden but not browned. Add the wine and allow to simmer for 5 minutes. Add rice, stir and allow to cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Now over medium heat begin adding broth, a ladleful at a time, and stir continuously. The rice should remain wet without being "drowned." As broth is absorbed, add more. The rice should be al dente (still slightly firm in the center) in 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter plus 2 handfuls of parmesan and salt to taste. Let sit 3 minutes before serving with the same wine used in cooking. Pass additional cheese and a pepper mill at the table.

Gabriella warns that you should not leave the rice once the process has begun. "Bring your guests into the kitchen," she suggests.