I couldn't keep up. The Washington area has at least 200 Italian restaurants of sorts, and new ones every month. What's more, old restaurants keep turning Italian, as if that were an American restaurant's natural state, to which it tends to revert as soon as anyone loosens the hold.

Italian restaurants are the most popular brand of restaurants in the country. In the Washington area as elsewhere, some of the eating establishments that pass themselves off as Italian are truly terrible. It is fair to say, however, that on balance Italian restaurants in these parts are improving. More good restaurants are opening; there are dining rooms with regional menus and less-familiar dishes. Pasta is being made by hand in more kitchens than ever before. Along with the all-too-prevalent lasagna and manicotti are trenette al pestoette al pesto and risotto on a few menus. Veal has also improved; 10 years ago, milk-fed, pale veal was seldom seen in America. Now the delicate meat, though very expensive, is one of the most popular options on menus.

The best of the area's Italian restaurants concentrate on fresh ingredients, cooked so that their individual characteristics are recognizable. Their pastas are al dente, sauced lightly rather than drenched, each with a distinct taste, an illustration of the chef's personality. The worst serve tomato-flavored, pasta-shaped food that is of one texture and one taste, whether it is cannelloni-shaped or tagliatelle-shaped. Somethimes Italian restaurants are more easily distinguished by their decor than by their food. And some feel compelled to add garnishes-discos, opera, gangster themes-to identify themselves in the crowd.

No category of restaurant varies so widely in price. The cheapest and the most expensive restaurants are Italian, and there are good ones at both ends of the scale.

Along with much to praise among Italian restaurants come two complaints. One is that many restaurants won't serve half-portions of pasta as an appetizer; thus, either two must share a single pasta dish, or one is presumably meant to eat it as a main course-a very non-Italian concept. With pastas climbing to $7 or $8 a portion, surely restaurants can afford to cook a $4 serving. Second, while wine lists are growing more extensive and suave, they are also growing outlandishly expensive, with prices as much as three times retail.

Diners are becoming more knowledgeable, and it is up to them to protest high wine prices, to encourage more adventuresome menus, to reinforce good cooking.

As for me, I am lasagnaed out and manicottied up to my ears. I am tagliatelli-tired, flooded with fettucine, spaghetti-slaked. For now, basta pasta.

The material prcedeing each of the following reviews, which are presented alphabetically, is based on information supplied by the restaurants and shows the cheapest and most expensive main dishes at lunch (L) and dinner (D), the days the restaurant is open and the credit cards it accepts: AE-American Express, MC-Master Charge, V-Visa, D-Diners Club, CB-Carte Blanche, CC-Central Charge and NAC-NAC charge plan .

Adriatico

4425 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 686-

1882. L $2.75-$3.95, D $4.25-

$7.50. L daily ex Sat and Sun, D

daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V.

A no-frills neighborhood eatery, Adriatico has drawn a fan club of families who appreciate reasonably priced, reliably good food. Service is erratic. Tables are close. The setting is far from graceful. And the spaghetti is unlikely to be al dente. But the short menu includes earthy fare such as stuffed squid and sausage with an Italian version of ratatouille. Tomato sauce permeates the air. Expect no suave veal mousse in the cannelloni, but expect the dough wrappers to be thin and light. The food is homey and pleasant, with prices to match. Even the wines are nearly all under $6.

Agostino's

1801 Connecticut Ave. NW.

667-6266. D $2.95-$9.95. D

daily. AE, CC, CB, D, NAC, MC, V.

The dining rooms are ornate, bordering on the clumsy; the cooking is homestyle, likewise bordering on the clumsy. But Agostino's is an energetic restaurant with an enthusiastic welcome. It could be fun, as long as you don't care about niceties such as thoroughly cooked dough or firm pasta. Most of the fare is standard, everyday Italian-American food.

Alfio's La Bella Vista

1011 Arlington Blvd., Rosslyn.

525-9195. L $2.95-$5.95, D

$4.50-$11.95. Closed Sunday.

AE, CB, CC, D, MC, V.

I have seen a rooftop restaurant decorated more like a basement, with dim archways and beamed ceiling. The view, along with its vistas, looks onto the parking lot and into a penthouse apartment. The food, too, has its pleasant and unpleasant surprises. The good ones are at the beginning and the end: Spiedino alla romano is a light puff of bread and cheese with plenty of anchovy on top. Rum cake is moist, creamy, endearingly rumsodden. But in between come overdoses of dried herbs turning dishes bitter, flabby pastas remarkably overcooked, and strangely perfumed green sauce for dry scampi. Veal dishes nearly make the grade, and Caesar salad is a good job. The menu goes on and on, leading one to assume that there are other dishes in between the first and last worth a penthouse view.

Alfio's La Trattoria

5100 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 966-

0091. L $3.95-$8.95, D $5.95-

11.95.Open daily. AE, BA, CC,

D, MC, V.

Dinner starts well at Alfio's with a witty, friendly coatroom attendant and a dining room staff that could cajole anyone into having a good time. And if you choose carefully, the good time can continue. Mozzarella in carrozza in flaky outside, gooey inside. Spaghetti alla carbonara needed more heat to firm the eggs, but it was smoky with ample bacon. Chicken dorati is lightly cooked, pretty and simple. Otherwise, the food tends to be bland, heavy, murky. The wine list has both breadth and friendly prices. Desserts include a gutsy rum cake and spumoni thick with candied cherries. Concentrate on beginnings and endings.

Alphine

4770 Lee Hwy., Arlington. 528-

7600. L $2.75-$4.25, D $4.25-

$9.95. Open daily. AE, BA, CB,

D, MC, V.

On a crowded evening, Alphine looks like an Italian baroque ski lodge, its several rooms woodlined and hung with plastic grapes. Through the bustle, the waiters take good care of you, refilling wine glasses and asking after your welfare. The spirit is carried out in large portions and, in the case of the pasta, moderate prices. What to order is a difficult question, since the quality of the cooking veers wildly. Paglia e fieno consists of excellent wiry al dente homemade noodles tossed with cream, ham and fresh mushrooms-a fine dish. Ravioli, however, are thick and pasty and without redemption. Among main courses, the scampi are a bit overdressed, but moist and fragrant, while veal is dark and stringy, bound in an anonymous thick sauce. Hot hors d'oeuvres are stuffed things with no personality. The one thing you can be sure of at Alphine is inconsistency.

Amalfi

12307 Wilkins Ave., Rockville.

77-7888. L $3.50- $7, D $3.50-

$8. L daily ex Sat and Sun,

closed Mon. AE, MC, V.

The smell of oregano and a sample of white pizza as you wait in line assure you that this is a genuine Italian trattoria. The appetizers are in the true Italian spirit: fried zucchini, white beans and the like. While the pasta list is not extensive or memorable, its prices are low. Main dishes center on veal and seafoods, but choices are best made from the list of specials-often, and without warning, more expensive than the printed menu, but including unconventional offerings such as roast duck or lobster soup. Roast veal, a thick chop with garlic and rosemary, is particularly savory.

Amalfi is a restaurant with highs and lows-excellent mushroom-scented tortellini in cream versus greasy, bready spiedini. It is a high density dining experience with long waits, while the waiters and cooks catch up with the crowd, compensated by large quantities of food-usually very good food-to keep you occupied.

Angie's Italian

Gardens

2317 Calvert St. NW. 234-4550.

L $3- $5, D $4.50-$7.90. L daily

ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. No

credit cards.

Lunchtime is the highlight of the day of Angie's when the omelet king reigns.Dinnertime it turns into a kind of off-campus college dining hall because it serves a lot of stick-to-your-ribs food at low prices. The waitress warns that the chicken and shrimp and almost everything else is frozen. Whatever else we tried was soft and dull, the sausage with green peppers most distinguished only because it was a different taste from the doughy tomato parade. What you get at Angie's can be most generously described as warm food.

Anna Maria's

1737 Connecticut Ave. NW.

667-1444. L $3.95-$6.95, D

$7.95-$16.50. L daily ex Sat and

Sun, D daily. AE, CB, CC, D,

MC, V.

Refreshing, that's what Anna Maria's is. Instead of red checks, Capri blue decorates the room, even to the dark blue flooring. The dishes are pottery, also with a Mediterranean look. Even the salt shakers and wine pitchers are coordinated. The service is cheerful, as are the prices, particularly the wine prices. All sorts of niceties come with the price: freshly grated parmesan, homemade noodles, big mugs for the coffee. The cooking, too, is refreshing, particularly the al dente spaghetti with fresh clams in a light, chunky tomato sauce. Veal francese is sliced thin, lightly battered and carefully browned with lemon butter, then dished up with a vegetable bonus like zucchini in creamy cheese sauce. Order cannoli if they have been freshly filled, rice pudding otherwise. And enjoy the nice details, from good bread to late kitchen hours.

Armand's Chicago

Pizzeria

4231 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 686-

9450. L $3.35-$5.50 D $3.20-

$9.95. Open daily. AE, BA, D,

MC.

If pizza can still be considered Italian, Armand's must be considered in any Italian roundup, for it was the first to bring "Chicago-style" deep-dish pizza to Washington. That and sandwiches are served in a rustic collegiate pub, where people go for the noise and bustle as much as the pizza. The pizza gives you a lot of dough for your money, but it is good, yeasty dough with a crusty bottom and a wash of chunky tomatoes on the top. The toppings tend to be over-priced and underseasoned, with mushrooms being the best of them as well as the best buy.

A.V. Ristorante

607 New York Ave. NW. 737

0550. L and D $3.50- $12. Closed

Monday. AE, CB, D, V.

When the food was good and cheap, the grubby environment and surly service were considered eccentric charm. but nowadays the charm wears thin at A.V. The menu is full of exotic dishes that don't exist in the kitchen. Pastas are soft, soggy doughs in watery sauces. While fish can be well prepared, and stewy dishes like osso bucco are satisfactory, veal tends to be dark and chewy, the roast veal in a startling sweet sauce. A.V. seems old and tried. Prices are still low, but the quality has sunk to meet them.

Buon Giorno

8001 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda.

652-1400. L $3.95-$5.25, D

$4.95-$8.95. Closed Monday. No

credit cards.

Although is started out as a convivial, personal family-run restaurant, Buon Giorno has turned abrupt, perfunctory in its rush, allows no orders for half-portions of pasta, issues food not up to its own high standards. The cream sauces on the pastas are the kitchen's best effort, so even if the tortellini could be more delicate, they shine in their cream. The once-wonderful lentil soup is now bland and oversalted. Veal is too thickly breaded and soggy; shrimp and tough. But fish is carefully handled, and the best part of the meal is often the fresh vegetable accompaniment. Desserts are delectable at Buon Giorno, particularly the creamy semifreddo and the fragile creme caramel. Considering its reasonably priced wines, Buon Giorno is moderately priced. At this point, it is moderately good, but is obviously capable of doing better.

Cafehs Pinocchio

5239 Duke St., Alexandria. 370-

5898. L $3.95-$5.50, D $5.95-

$9.50. Open daily. AE, MC, V.

Most of the attraction at the Cafe Pinocchio is in the dining room, where the decor and staff are determinedly cheerful. The food is middling, with chicken breast usually the most successful main course, and hot antipasto a good beginning (or a light lunch). Sunday brunch is a big production, though the quantity outshines the quality. Cafe Pinocchio is a friendly suburban Italian-style restaurant that is easy to like despite the food rather than because of it.

Caffe Italiano

3516 Connecticut Ave. NW.

966-2172. L $2.95- $5, D $4-

8.50. L daily ex Sat and Sun, D

daily. AE, MC, V.

Better than ever is the kitchen at Caffe Italiano, though its expansion has the dining room staff rushing around at breakneck speed. The menu is heavy on pastas and veals, and rightly so, for the seafood dishes can be skimpy. Among pastas-not homemade, but skillfully cooked-concentrate on the tomato sauces, for rarely are they made with such sensitivity. Veal Ivana, with brandy, wine, cheese, asparagus and artichokes, sounds like a dangerous balancing act, but blends into one sumptuous dish. Be sure to order a la carte vegetables, particularly the salty-sweet peppers graziella. For dessert, don't stray beyond the cannoli. Caffe Italiano is nearly unadorned and brightly lit, no setting for romance. And its prices outspace its ambience. But the kitchen is in capable hands.

Cantina d'Italia

1214 18th St. NW. 659-1830. L

$6.50-$9.75, D $6.75-$16.50.

Closed Sat and Sun. AE, D, CB,

MC, V.

No other restaurant in Washington, Italian or otherwise, combines quality and spirit in such full measure. Cantina's menu is not extensive, but it changes with the seasons, and in summer offers rare delights such as marinated raw veal and cold poached rockfish in Turinese mayonnaise. Cantina is also famous for its flaws-plastic grapes and plaster sculpture where another restaurant might have soft-spoken Impressionist paintings. But the curved banquettes compensate. Pastas and desserts are unique and usually superb. Try noodles sauced with juices of veal roasts or with lobster puree. Red wine risotto and polenta are on the menu. Main courses are more variable; the rabbit is a difficult mix of sweet and sour, the duck with olives a heavy dish that won't please everyone. Order anything with seasonal vegetables-tomatoes with basil, arugola salad. And save room for espresso cheese-cake, cannoli, ricotta pie or zuppa inglese. The wine list is thick with the grandest of Italian wines, at prices among the highest in town. Cantina is indeed expensive. But keep in mind that portions are enormous, and may dishes can be shared. The fried mozzarella is unequalled, for instance, in price as well as its sheer deliciousness. But it is twice as large as a normal portion, which makes it enough for a least three people, who can then go on to half portions of pasta, salad, main course, on through dessert. Cantina started at the top among Washington's restaurants, and holds it place solidly.

Capricorn

4441 Connecticut Ave. NW.

363-9674. L $2.15-$2.75, D

$3.20-$6.25. L daily ex Sat, D

daily, closed Sun. D. MC, V.

Restaurant, cocktail lounge, TV-crew afterhours hangout, Capricorn is dark and often raucous, and not really known in the neighborhood as an Italian restaurant. And the pizza is easy to forget. But there is a pretty classy veal francaise (misspelled on the menu) for just over $6. The lasagna tastes Greek, heavily sprinkled with cinnamon. But the Italian sausage and the chicken cacciatore are good, inexpensive and generous. Capricorn hides some personable home cooking among the reuben sandwiches and pizza burgers.

Caruso's

Fox Hill Shipping Center,

Herndon. 620-2811. L $3.25-

$5.95, D $6.25-$10.75. L daily ex

Sat, D daily, closed Mon. AE,

MC, V.

Ordinarily I don't favor distractions from the food in a restaurant, but when the distractions are as enticing as the opera singing at Caruso's, I don't even mind my waitress stopping for an aria before she brings my appeitzer. The long railroad-style rooms have no visual beauty to match the music, but some of the food makes a good supporting cast. I could do without the bread-breaking ceremony the waitress requires, and the lemon sherbet to cleanse your palate between courses is so asset. But the tortellini alla crema is cheese-rich and spicy, and the sausage with peppers, mozzarella and mushroom is an appetizing combination. Keep out of the way of the eggplant parmesan, and don't expect much of the veal and chicken dishes. The cioppino could be good with more seafood in it. Care is taken with vegetables, and the cannoli is second only to Romeo and Juliet's-or to Sicily's. So you are taking a chance on the food at Caruso's, but the operatic evening is grand.

Charing Cross

3027 M St. NW. 338-2141. L

$2.75-$3.95, D $4.25-$7.50. L

daily ex Sat and Sun, D daily.

AE, CB, D, MC, V.

The first surprise is that Charing Cross is Italian. The second surprise is that it is very good food for the price. The menu is pasta-heavy, with a few veal, seafood, sausage and chicken dishes, all the familiar Italian cast of characters. The wine list is short, but very low priced. While the two rooms are decorated Georgetown pubstyle, with bare wood tables and hanging plants, the kitchen has Italian senibilities. Spaghetti with clams is al dente, the fresh clams in a proper balance of garlic and parsley. Veal may not be the palest, but it is cooked with flair. The food is homey, plentiful, a good value. This is Georgetownhs trattoria.

Coco's Casa Mia

3111 Columbia Pike.,

Arlington. 920-5450. L $4.25-

$6.50, D $4.75-$9.25. Open

daily. AE, D, MC, V.

Not only is Coco's a gaint step above most neighborhood Italian resturants, it is far more entertaining. First, there is the disco. Second, the menu prose can keep you company for a while, so elaborate are its descriptions. The several rooms are dim and mysterious, with thick stucco and a large fireplace, the effect modified by signs such as "no phone calls" and "coat check 25 cents." The wine list is long, its prices reasonable. Service is businesslike, efficient. And the food-most of it-is good in a rough, unpolished way. Veal francaise illustrates how fine the ingredients are. And an Italian platter for two shows how much two people can be expected to eat for $22. Pastas are thick, indelicate, but robustly flavored, except for the fettucine alfredo, which needs more personality. Try the ravioli, the sausage. Coco's is a spirited restaurant, though its prices tend to be high for the kitchen's accomplishments and the dining room bustle.

D'Angelo's

13865 Connerticut Ave.,

Wheaton. 460-3500. L $2.75-

$3.60, D $4.25- $10. Open daily.

AE, CC, MC, V.

The food is just your average inferior Italian mass cooking, dished up in big portions, but the waitresses in waistcoats and white shirts are considerate, the lighting in dim enough to mute the vinyl, and a mirrored wall is whimsically decorated with a painted tree. Best of the food is the pizza, flaky-crusted Maryland pizza with lots of cheese. The manicotti, fluffy inside and crispy outside, would have been interesting if it had not been inedibly salty. Between the low prices and benevolent surroundings, D'Angelo's has appeal, if no culinary distinction.

Danny's Spaghetti

House

1909 Seminary Rd., Silver

Spring. 558-4110. L and D

$1.50-$5.50. Closed Sun. No

credit cards.

This is the typical sort of restaurant one calls Italian-American, meaning that it serves spaghetti, but a visiting Italian might not even recognize it. The room is a cross between a chalet and trattoria, with red, checkered tablecloths on the tables, beer signs on the half-timbered walls. The service is all business, hectic. The food consists of thin, cracker-crusted pizza or packaged pasta boiled into submission and buried in thick tomato sauce. Veal parmigiana is like something you would pop into the toaster to thaw. The chianti is sweet, the garlic bread very salty. And you are tempted next time around to order a corned beef sandwich.

Da Vinci

2541 L St. NW. 965-2209. L $4-

$5, D $8.25-$10.50. L daily ex

Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE,

CB, D, MC, V.

The most important kitchen on the Italian landscape this year is Da Vinci's. Brick and skylights and floating staircase introduced it as one of the most striking restaurants in town. And since last fall the food has matched the setting and the prices. Try a pasta sampler-available even in half-portions-tortellini enveloping multi-layered tastes, floating in a delicate tomato cream, a puff of cannelloni, boldly spiced agnolotti in a thick cream. Chicken breast, veal, specials like liver and pheasant with spinach gnocchi, are elegant preparations, accompanied by commendale vegetables. Service sometimes glides, sometimes slips into offhanded disdain. But at last Leonardo could be proud.

Du Barry's

7161 Lee Hwy., Falls Church. L

$3.75-$4.50, D $5.75-$7.50 L

and D daily ex Sun. AE, MC, V.

Last year it was French; this year it is Italian, and all the better for it. The service now is smooth and proffessional, the two rooms still pretty with stucco walls and draparies across the arched windows. Except for a few indifferent appetizers, the kitchen is turning out good food. Start with a spicy, bacon-scented vegetable soup, or delicate homemade noodles with ham and cheese or in pesto. Red sauces are less exciting, and some of the pasta is overcooked. Best of the main course are probably veal, particularly with asparagus, mushrooms and mozzarella. Better ham and fresher sage are needed to prove the saltimbocca worthy. A good chianti is available on the short wine list. Desserts are pink and green and pasty-sweet, so concertrate on pastas and main courses.

Enrico's

12220 Veirs Mill Rd. Silver,tSpring. 942-5550. L $2.50- $3, D

$4.75-$9.50. Closed Sun. MC, V.

The Italian spirit-generous, exuberant-lives in Wheaton, at a small, family-run restaurant named Enrico's. Home cooking is not necessarily synonymous with good cooking, so stick to the simplest at Enrico's, namely the turkey cutlets or veal marsala. Soups show promise. And this flowery little restaurant obviously tries hard.

Firenze

5400 Pooks Hill Rd., Bethesda.

530-2700. L $3.95-$6.50, D

$6.95-$10.50. L daily ex Sat, D

daily, closed Sun. AE, BA, MC.

The setting is formal, with high-backed, velvet-seated chairs and soft carpet as well as soft lighting. The food-a long list of veals and seafoods, a few steaks and chickens, a couple of vegetarian plates and many pastas-is uncomplicated, good if not memorable. Less care is taken with the pastas, which are unlikely to be al dente or delicately sauced, than with the veal. Prices are high, and there is better Italian food for the money, but the moderate wine prices compensate, and Firenze treats you well.

Fontana's

5623 Annapolis Rd.,

Bladensburg. 864-5888. L

$2.50-$5.75, D $3.75-$12.95.

Closed Sun. BA, MC, V.

Apparently the big draw at Fontana's is the after-midnight Italian breakfast, served until 5 a.m. During normal hours it is a slapdash sort of feeding operation in Mrs. Fontana's house, with her serving whatever is in the kitchen or has been ordered ahead, to occasional rock music accompaniment. Prices are not low, and the food leans towards veal tenders, those nearly chopped preportioned veal rounds. Spaghetti is as limp as the decor, but vegetables can be good. Fontana's is as much a curiosity as a restaurant.

Frascati

4806 Rugby Ave., Bethesda. L

$2.50-$4.75, D $5-$7.50. L daily

ex Sat and Sun, d daily, closed

Mon. AE, D, MC, V.

It looks absolutely southern Italian, with wrought iron railings and plastic wherever possible. The room is crowded and brightly lit, with one romantic niche in full view of the dining room bustle. Take a cue from the surroundings, and order heaty, earthy dishes with red sauces. Pietanza capricciosa piles green peppers onto juicy chicken, and fills out the plate with savory stuffed zucchini and sausage in a lively tomato sauce. Calamari are soft and fragrant in a good tomato sauce. But this is one of those inexplicable Italian restaurants that serves no half-portions of pasta, so you both could be stuck with thick, heavy tortellini instead of having half a chance at trying a more delicate pasta. The service is almost committed to being abrupt, as if to compensate for the reasonable prices of the food and wine.

Garibaldi

Tyson's Corner Shopping

Center, McLean. 893-2443. L

$3.25-$3.75, D $3.95-$10.95. L

daily ex Sat, D Daily. AE, CB, D,

MC, V.

The restaurant version of a Marriott theme park, Garibaldi's is as cute as a Disney cartoon, but the food tastes like stage props. Clams casino are frozen, minestrone tastes of a peculiar sourness, and anything that has a taste at all-scampi, garlic bread-tastes bitter above all. The culinary focus is on the antipasto bar, packed with green and vegetables and cheese and cold cuts. And certainly you can make a satisfactory meal of this cold array. But even the salad bar attacks your sensibilities once you notice that the fruit basket is filled, but with two unripe pears and the rest being lemons and limes. This is American factory food with an Italian accent, a faint Italian accent.

Geppetto

2917 M St. NW. 332-2600. L $3-

$6, D $4- $7. L daily ex Sun, D

daily. AE, D, MC, V.

Geppetto is as cute as ever, set with cuckoo clocks and puppets. Geppetto is as nice as ever, its young servers majoring in graciousness. Geppetto is as slow as ever, its staff overburdened by its popularity. And the food is as mixed as ever. The pizza is terrific, the yeasty crust either thick or thin, as you choose, highly peppered and spread with chucks of tomato and a sea of cheese. Toppings are over-priced, so the best order is a plain thick-crusted Sicilian pizza. Also try the deep fried eggplant, prosciutto and ricotta sandwich and the dessert of creamy, chocolate-studded ricotta pie. Veal is chewy and gray, pastas are assimilationist versions, tasty stuff but devoid of Italian accent. Within its short menu-sandwiches, salads, pizzas and a few daily specials-there is enough to please.

G. D. Graffiti

1321 Rockville Pike, Rockville.

424-4090. D $4.95-$8.95. D

daily, MC, V.

There are three reasons for dining at G. D. Graffiti: 1) you like being a character in an Al Capone comic strip, 2) if the food is cheap enough and plentiful enough you will east anything, 3) the salad bar is unsurpassed in town. The gangster theme is carried to sheer embarrassment, and the short menu (prime ribs, barbecued ribs, chateaubriand, lobster, veal parmigiana, and cioppino, mostly) leaves little choice between the dry beef, chewy veal or leaden lasagna. The seafood stew is satisfying, if unexciting. But the salad bar is the focal point, with nearly every vegetable your grocer supplies, plus ripe pineapple and melons, even out of season. Dinner includes a taste of wine when the server comes around and cloying Italian ice to "cleanse your palate." The salad bar alone costs $3.95, a good buy, though the dinners enter at only $1 more.

Geranio

724 King St., Alexandria. 548-

0088. L $3.75- $6, D $5.25-$10.50.

L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed

Sun. AE, MC, V.

Geranio is one of those graceful little restaurants that becomes a favorite for everyday lunches as well as for special dinners. In general the food is tantalizing, though the zucchini might be bitter one day, the pasta lifeless another. Concertrate on daily specials. Chicken is cooked beautifully. Veal is of reliably high quality. Soups are full and earthy, and pastas are sprightly. A short wine list is reasonably priced. In general, the food is fresh and straightforward, the kind of simplicity that makes Italian food so memorable.

Grand Cafe

100 King St., Alexandria. 549-

3838. L $1.75-$4.95, D $2.50-

$5.95. Open daily. AE, CB, CC,

D, MC, V.

While I hesitate to send you to a restaurant just for the bread, it is homemade and very good at the Grand Cafe. The calzone, being a variation on the bread theme, is also good, though its pallid tomato sauce pays it no compliment. This is a down-to-earth cafe with a light menu of salads, sandwiches, omelets and pizzas and a few pastas and meat dishes. Fresh fruit daiquiris seem to be the specialty of the kitchen. Service is cheerful but intermittent, and the room is painted in such drab colors as to seem like punishment for trying to eat cheaply rather than at the elegant Pellicano downstairs. Pastas and meat dishes tend to be damp and soggy, tasting watered down as well. The baker is the star here.

Gusti's

1837 M St. NW. 331-9444. L

$2.95-$4.95, D $4.75-$9.95. Open

daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V.

Thirty years old and 10 dining rooms big, Gusti's is a labyrinth of mass feeding, of Americanized Italian food at modest prices. The bread is the best part-crusty and chewy. But most of the Italian dishes have the texture of baby food. The cannelloni are packets of redtinged hamburger in limp noodles, topped with processed cheese slices. The veal scaloppine tastes like pot roast. It all tastes like institution food, filling and bland but unobjectionable if you are simply looking to fill up without spending too much.

II Giardino

1110 21st St. NW. 223-4555. L

$7-$9.50, D $8.50-$12.50. L daily

ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE,

CB, D, MC, V.

The menu borders on French, but the spirit is Italian in this grand, ambitious restaurant that looks like a tastefully appointed courtyard. The dining room is well-organized, with much tableside flaming and portioning, though the captains seem to tire of reciting the vast list of desserts. While the food is from good to glorious, it is hardly consistent enough for the price. Vegetables are perfect in one dish, limp and exhausted in another. Pastas, too, vary from the subtle agnolotti to vibrant fusilli with gralicky broccoli to cannelloni that is thick and tasteless, a starchy mess. Main dishes sometimes are heavy-handed, some times faultless. For summer, don't miss the strikingly pretty antipasto. And the array of desserts-though not always as delicious as they look-is impressive. The wine list is horrendously expensive. II Giardino is within reach of sharing the throne among Italian restaurants in Washington; it gives up too easily.

II Nido

4712 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 363-

2672. L $3.95-$5.25, D $6.95-

$10.50. L daily ex Sat and Sun,

D daily. AE, MC, V.

At long last risotto.II Nido has brought to Washington some rare regional pastas, authentically delicious fritto misto, veal dishes of considerable finesse, and a changing list of seasonal dishes. The kitchen can be one of Washington's best, although it slips sometimes. The setting is a tiny contemporary dining room as crisp and painstakingly fresh and simple as the food. Prices are high, and serive can be high-handed, but this new Italian restaurant is challenging Washington's finest.

II Porto

120 King St., Alexandria. 836-

8833. L $3.95-$4.75, D $4.50-

$9.75. L daily ex Sun, D daily.

AE, MC, V.

II Porto is what is known as a family restaurant, meaning that it is run by nice people who serve a lot of food for the money, though not necessarily of a quality that any but the children might seek. It looks like a homey dining room multipied by 10, filled with knicknacks and dark wood. The best dish, in my experience, is raviolini alla panna, the meaty pasta envelopes cooked al dente and drenched in a buttery cream. Their pastas are standard stuff, the cannelloni pasty. Main courses, too, are buried under Heavy insulations of cheese or sauce. Desserts center on homemade ice cream, better than most but not much better. In general, prices are moderate and quality the same.

Italianissimo

2900 Columbia Pike.,

Arlington. 920-2900. L $3.25-

$5.50, D $4.75-9.50. L daily ex

Sat and Sun, D daily. AE, MC,

V.

After several up-and-down cycles, Italianissimo in some ways remains as grand as ever: the room is a romantic setting of soft banquettes and candlelight, napkins folded like fans, and a staff accommodating enough to serve half-portions of pasta and split them between sharers' plates. Follow the suggestions of the waiter in avoiding fish dishes. Concentrate on pastas-sometimes too heavy or too limp, but with well-seasoned sauces. Though the brown sauces are floury, good quality veal is served, so team whatever you like with a tomato sauce and you can find a pleasant enough meal in these very attractive surroundings.

La Gondola

108 Diamond Ave.,

Gaithersburg. 977-6944. L

$2.75- $5, D $4.25- $10. L daily ex

Sat and Sun, D daily. MC, V.

If the color red in a restaurant means elegance, La Gondola is giving you a lot of elegance for the money.The walls, the carpet, the hurricane lamps give off a ruby glow. Besides that decorative theme, the combination of onions, garlic, lemon, rosemary and parsley is the culinary theme. It is a savory combination and repeats itself in shrimp risotto and veal marsala, saving the day-or dinner. Otherwise, the food is solid, the seafood overcooked and the veal chewy but the flavors pleasant. Prices are low, wine prices even lower, and the welcome is hearty. In all modesty, it does a reasonable job.

La Scala

4915 Silver Hill Rd., Suitland.

568-3400. L $2.85-$4.50, D

5.50-$8.50. Open daily. CB, D,

MC, V.

I finally came across it-an Italian restaurant of uncommon quality along one of those thousands of identical fast-food highways. La Scala has all the cliches-candles in wine bottles, paper place mats on red vinyl cloths, arched doorways and windows cut into stucco walls. It also has stained glass and a fireplace and waitresses who are willing to learn, though far from graduation day. It also apparently has a real chef in the kitchen. The sausage is homemade and aromatic, the pastas rolled out in the kitchen. The soup tastes prepackaged, the pale veal is clumsily butchered, and the management refuses to serve half-portions of pasta. But there is plenty of good news. Mozzarella in carrozza, light and crisp, matches the best in town. The house special pasta is creamy and earthy with mushrooms. The spicy braciole is excellent, the chicken cacciatore is one of the few worthy ones I have had. And for dessert there is homemade tortoni, smooth and creamy and almond-flecked. The personality in the kitchen shows on the plate.

Ledo

2420 University Blvd W.,

Hyattsville. 422-8622. L $2.85-

$3.10, D $4.25-$8.25. Open

daily. No credit cards.

Practically a historical monument in Prince George's County, Ledo signals that it is open by the lines of people waiting to get in. They crowd the booths set with paper place mats. They order pizza and more pizza, flaky-crusted and thickly sealed with tomato sauce and cheese. The food is not grand, but it is tasty homegrown fare, the house tomato sauce a kind of trademark, thick and too sweek, but zesty. Some dishes-for-example, veal "ala Francea"-are eccentric but nevertheless endearing. Don't look for elegant food here. Skip the shrimp. For inexpensive, solid food Ledo packs them in.

Lenzo

1744 L St. NW. 659-2429. L

$4.50- $6, D $4.50-$6.95. Closed,tSun. AE, V.

It is the setting that makes Lenzo. Side by side with Tony's its sidewalk cafe turns L Street into a hint of Italy.The inside is focused on the bar, making it seem like a convivial drinking spot with eating as a sideline. Does it matter that the fettucine crunches and tastes like homeec class white sauce? That the pizza could lose a competition to your favorite from the supermarket? The veal has possibilities, but cooking is not the strong point at Lenzo's.

Lido di Venezia

200 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington.

525-8770. L $3.50-$5.75, D

$7.50- $12. L daily ex Sat and

Sun, D daily. AE, D, MC, V.

Except for an overzealous affection for Venetian blue, Lido di Venezie is one of the most comfortable, professional restaurants in the area. The extensive menu stretches just among the appetizers from snails in pastry basket to cima alla genovese (the best dish I have tried there, its veal ribboned with green herbs and rolled around sweetbreads). While the pastas are not cooked attentively enough to arrive al dente, their sauces are remarkable, particularly the fettucine alfredo, just thick enough to coast the noodles, and pungently seasoned. On main dishes, though, the sauces lumber into heaviness, overseasoning. Order something simple, for the ingredients are sincere, and accompanying vegetables are of high order. The wine list is fairly broad, the prices elevated, as one expects in Virginia, but not as outrageous as some restaurants are becoming, and bargains can be found among the older wines. Desserts are handsomely arrayed on a cart, but don't quite match their display. Lido Venezia is a restaurant that can be superior-at a moderate price for its quality-but gets carried away, like the decor, into blaring excess.

Luigi's

1132 19th St. NW. 331-7574.

6723 Richmond Hwy.,

Alexandria. 765-5900. 4919

Fairmont Ave., Bethesda. 656-

5882. L $3.25-$5.50, D $7- $9.

Open daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V.

Now there are three. The suburban branches of Luigihs have the advantage of a well-reputed salad bar; the downtown branch has the advantage of tradition-worn surroundings in the Hollywood-movie-restaurant tradition. At least downtown the best dishes are the simplest, the likes of chicken filet sauteed with an egg batter and mozarella-topped. Pasta is homemade, but none the better for it. Cream sauces tend towards the bland and watery; tomato sauces at least have the oomph of a touch of red pepper. As for the veal, it is but brown shards of meat in bitter watery sauce. Stick to the pizza, its fresh dough and abundance of cheese the surest bet on the menu.

Mama Bellosi's

Owl and Tortoise

916 19th St. NW. 293-4827. L

and D $4-12. L and D daily,

closed Sat and Sun. AE, MC, V.

A little of this, a little of that, a free cocktail hour buffet and an Italian menu with diet specials add up to a confusing restaurant. The Owl and Tortoise looks half pub and half nautical. Yet, the menu is largely Italian and the food tastes largely indifferent. Heavy, mushy pastas constitute the bulk of the menu, at prices as high as some of the most elegant restaurants.

Mamma Regina's

8727 Colesville Rd., Silver

Spring. 585-1040. L $4- $7, D

$7-$11.50. L daily ex Sat, D

daily, closed Sun. MC, V.

Value is the question at Mamma Regina's. It is a nice place, though its motel origins are not overcome by the elaborate decoration. The service is excellent, neglecting none of the pepper grindings and cheese sprinklings that ingratiate. And Regina's highly publicized pastas are indeed as fragile and properly cooked as one would hope. It is the main courses-very dry, fishy salmon, veal that starts out well but ends up overcooked-that make one question the value, and the wine prices reassert the question. If you visit Mamma for her gnocchi with tomato bacon sauce or fettucine with ham, peas and cream or with clams, you won't need to question the value.

Marco Polo

245 W Maple Ave., Vienna. 281-

3922. L $2.75-$6.50, D $5.25-

$12.50. L and D daily, closed

Sun. AE, D, MC, V.

While most of Washington's Italian restaurant look like the engagement scene in a Grade B movie romance, Marco Polo looks like an MGM musical. A double stairway leads up to a disco, down to room after room of dark wood and red velvet, waiters in black tie gliding around the plates lined up their arms. Behind the scenes is less glamor; the extensive wine list is extensively depleted, and the dark, stewy veal is upstaged by its sauces-drowning, over-salted. The menu is ambitious, but plheasant turns up in a thick muddy sauce, shrimp toughened and chewy. Pastas do better, being at least al dente, and among the desserts is a star-quality zuccotto, the frozen cream studded with almonds and chocolate chips and wrapped in thin cake slices.

Marrocco's

1913 Pennsyivania Ave. NW.

331-9664. L $4- $5, D $5- $9. L

daily ex Sat, D daily, closed

Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V.

It is hard to knock a restaurant that is so nice, and Marrocco's shows more interest in the welfare of its diners than one might find in a month of restaurants. Nevertheless, one goes to a restaurant to eat. And on a recent visit not a single dish roused itself from the doldrums. Most dishes were pitifully over-salted; pastas were heavy and bland. Veal and shrimp were tough and dry. The most pleasant thing to issue from the kitchen was the waiter.

Marshall's West End

2525 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

659-6886. L $2.50-$4.25, D

$5.95-$8.50. Open daily. AE,

BA, MC.

Georgtown-style pubs are moving east, and Marshall's front half is a burgers-and-beer bar that has become a home away from home for the neighborhood. The back room is a restaurant, an Italian restaurant, a very good restaurant. The room and the menu are small, but both are attractive. Start with a half-portion of pasta, particularly the green-and-gold straw and hay. Or begin with batterfried vegetables and cheese. While main dishes are sometimes overseasoned or confused with too many conflicting flavors, veal and chicken are generally good, vegetables are perky. To accompany the food are reasonably priced Italian wines and decent Italian carafe wines. Wooden louvers on the walls, dried flowers and candles on the tables, and enthusiastic waitresses enhance the food, which is pretty good on its own.

Nathan's

3150 M St. NW. 338-2000. L

$3.32-$5.95, D $7-$13.50. Open

daily. AE, CB, D, MC, V.

Whatever is going on in the kitchen at Nathan's, the dining room has its fans. Comfortable booths, red roses in Dom Perignon bottles against pink tablecloths, classical music on the tape deck-such are the continuing attractions at Nathan's. Just as chic is the wine list, heavy with champagnes. The kitchen, however, is not as polished a performer as it once was. Fettucine napoletana is tomato-fresh, and daily special pastas can be excellent, but other pastas have been too thick or even crumbling. Sauces are poured over spaghetti rather than being tossed together. Best courses tend to be beginning ones - appetizers, soups, pastas. Main courses have been slapdash, though things have been known to look up with dessert.

Nino's 1204 20th St. NW. 659-8024. L and D $2.50-$6.95. L daily ex Sat and Sun, D daily. AE, MC, V.

Probably the smallest restaurant in town, Nino's looks like the mythic Italian restaurant, with red-checked vinyl tablecloths and tough but sweet waitresses in jeans. Prices are low, but, as the waitresses put it, they serve real veal, "Not that chopped stuff." They also serve homemade cheese ravioli (the meat ravioli tasted canned) and manicotti in good tomato sauce, and spaghetti with honest-to-goodness fresh clams. They fill the cannoli to order. So, despite pizza that is a bore and plenty of pasta dishes that are standard, Nino's sometimes rises to the occasion, and always serves friendly food in friendly surroundings.

Palazzo

4231 Markham St., Annandale.

256-8697.L $2.50-$3.75, D

$4.50-$10.95. Open daily. AE, MC, V.

They get you by the gimmicks. A three-piece band and a cheese bar (with plastic-wrapped, slice-your-own logs of things identified as "salami shape cheese" and the like). You get a lot of grimmickry and red brick and weighty food for a low price, so Palazzo packs them in. But the tomato sauces are thick enough to cut with a knife, and the lasagna tastes sweet-sour. Waiters let you fend for yourself between orders. This is the kind of Italian cooking that turns out every dish tasting alike, none like anything you might eat in Italy.

Pellicano

100 King St., Alexandria. 549-8440. L $3.25-$6.25, D $5.75-$9.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily. AE, CB, D MC, V.

Such a pretty restaurant, with contemporary paintings on rough fabric walls and soft upholstered chairs deserves better service. After waiting 20 minutes to be greeted and even longer for an appetizer, an artichoke with yellow ballpark mustard is discouraging. But Pellicano has better to offer, a lemony buttered trout and veal of high quality. Pastas are homemade and cooked perfectly, but sauced for bland diets. The surroundings imply better, but homemade zuccotto for dessert ends a meal on a high note.

Pettito's

2653 Connecticut Ave. NW.

667-5350. L $3.75-$5.75, D $5.75-$9.75. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. SE, CB, D, MC, V.

The accumulation of details adds up to a pleasant evening at Pettito's, enough to make you overlook its shortcomings. First, the two small rooms are stylish, one with a fireplace, the other with a picture window overlooking a bit of greenery. The walls are hung with amusing pen and ink drawings on a pasta theme. The wine list is small but reasonable, and the house wines are commendable. Dinner is served by young women who seem like professionals in training rather than between-jobs chorines. The menu is devoted almost entirely to pastas, though some of the best dishes - veal sauteed with lime and butter, leg of lamb roasted with rosemary and garlic - are meat specials. The antipasto is a beautiful still life. As for pastas, the noodles are slightly too thick, and the tomato sauces are more notable than the cream sauces, but in general the food has a fresh liveliness. Pasta prices are high, but are available in half portions to leave room for the grand chocolate walnut cake.

Pines of Rome

4709 Hampden Lane, Bethesda. 657-8775. L $3-15, D

$3.50-15. L daily ex Sun, D daily, closed Mon. AE, CB, D, MC, V.

Transplant Pines of Rome to Rome, and no head would turn, no nose sniff in puzzlement or disappointment. It is, despite its eclectic mix of non-Italian waiters, an Italian trattoria. Spare, no frills, with its red-check tablecloths of vinyl and its candles wedged into chianti bottles, Pines of Rome's beauty is in the meu. Choose daily specials - roast veal, if it is available, or fresh fish. But don't neglect beginnings: lacy fried zucchini with a squeeze of lemon, stewed white beans, white or red-sauce pizza, chewy and yeasty and authentic, heavily littered with garlic and oregano but never with excessive sauce. The pasta choices are few, but the homemade ravioli are as al dente as one expects in Italy, meaty and fresh and sauced lightly with rought-cut tomatoes - as simple and straightforward and homely as pasta is meant to be. Also Italian are the prices - no wine over about $7, most pastas less than $4, veal dishes (other than the $8 roast) a purse-satisfying $5.50. Don't expect the grandeur or warm paternalism of some Italian restaurants; Pines of Rome's pleasures are on the plate.

Pistone's

6320 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church. 533-1885. L $2.95-$5.75, D $4.75-$12.95. Open daily. AE, CB, MC, V.

Two attractions vie for attention at Pistone's. First, there is the piano bar, a late-night singalong party. Next, there is a salad bar, sea of greens and three kinds of olives and two kinds of peppers and cheeses and corn relish and whole marinated mushrooms and the best caponata south of Baltimore. The rest of the menu is unexciting, the food being drowned in tomato sauce and all of soft, doughy texture. Alsagne edges out the other dishes - ravioli, manicotti, spaghetti, fettucine. But this large restaurant decorated with barn siding survives on its good fun, low prices and stretch of greens.

Portofino

526 S 23rd St., Arlington. 979-8200. L $3.95-$6.50, D $6.95-$10.509 L daily ex Sat and Sun, D daily. AE, BA, MC.

Poor, poor Portofino. It was once at the top, but has settled into an expensive restaurant with run-of-the-mill food. It still bustles, and the waiters are adept. And the pastas, particularly thei creamy version of spaghetti alla carbonara, can be quite good. But the hot hors d'oeuvres are mushy and dull, the veal lost in acrid sauces, the fish stews brewed of dry, staletasting fish into bitter broths. Carelessness runs the kitchen.

Port of Italy$3285 Brinkley Rd., Temple Hills. 894-6300. L $1.95-$3.95, D $4.95-$9.95. Open daily. AE, D, MC, V.

It's a mystery why the pies are called homemade, when the waitress tells us they are Mrs. Smith's. And it is a mystery why the menu effuses about the local fresh seafood, when the waitress says there has been no fresh fish for a long time. And it is a mystery how this food, this soft, mushy pasta in red sludge, this flavorless pizza, this dark veal in gravy with wads of flour, can be called Italian food. The prices are moderate, but the food is immoderately disappointing.

Prino's

2047 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 528-1661. L $2.95-$3.95, D $3.50-$11.95. L daily ex Stat, D daily, closed Sun. MC, V.

As a neighborhood restaurant, it is a pretty little place, brightened by green latticework up the walls, with paternalistic waiters who embody the Latin spirit. On weekends the dish in demand is lobster, served in a a spicy, chunky marinara sauce. But the food is pedestrian, the watery fettucine all'alfredo lacking cheese, the stuffed pastas tasting of nothing but dough, the veal dark and oily. It would be recognized anywhere in the country, this kind of neighborhood-Italian food.

Riviera Ristorante

6212 Little River Tpk., Alexandria. 354-8484. L $1.75-$4.50, D $4.50- $13. L daily ex Sat, D daily. AE, CB, D, V

Two main assets distinguish Riviera from the mass of shopping-center Italian restaurants: It has an outdoor cafe, and an antipasto bar (a modest one but nevertheless an antipasto bar) is included in the entree price. Half bar and half restaurant, Riviera reserves its most romantic tables for the bar section. Like the restaurant, the food intermingles assets and defects so that each dish leaves you ambivalent. Spaghetti is homemade, and the noodles are light and eggy. But one sauce is burned, another watery. The fettucine all'alfredo tastes sweet, and lacks cheese. Chicken cannelloni is a good idea with the peculiar flavor of the liquid from canned string beans. Zuppa di pesce is almost all fish, with no more than two bites of shellfish. Veal is tough, some of it pale and some beefy brown. The best of the meal is dessert: cannoli, crisp and delicate and finished with care.

Rocco's

1357 Chain Bridge Rd., McLean. 821-3736. L and D $3.50-$6.95. L daily ex Sun, D daily. No credit cards.

Looking like a fast-food restaurant, Rocco's puts red vinyl place mats on red vinyl checked tablecloths, and serves standard red-sauce Italian food that all tastes pretty much the same. The pastas are a touch above average, but the pizza crust is like a big cracker, the veal a rigid crunch of dark meat. It all balances out to one of the mob of everyday Italian-American restaurants.

Roma

3419 Connecticut Ave. NW. 363-6611. L $3.25-$5.25, D $4.35-$8.95. Open daily. AE, CB, CC, D, MC, V.

If you want to understand what makes Italian restaurants the favorite family restaurants in America, visit the Roma. It is casual, but has tablecloths. It is inexpensive but not plain, even with a solid dose of "atmosphere." It has dim booths and a garden. It is populated by energetic waitresses who specialize in rapid service and cheerfulness. The food is simple, homestyle, far from intimidating. And the portions are large. The ingredients are no the best, the fish is likely to be overcooked, and pasta is served as a side dish for pasta. But it is common-denominator food. At such an earthbound restaurant, order hearty food like polenta with sausage or pasta with meat sauce; delicacies like veal are destined to be disappointing. But a faimly can eat to the satisfaction of every member and the wallet.

Romeo and Juliet

2020 K St. NW. 296-7112. L $5.25-$8.50, D $7.75- $14. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, D, MC, V.

Unlike Tiberio and II Giardino, its high-society Italian neighbors, Romeo and Juliet has a menu that remains innately Italian rather than edging into French. Even more unlike them, its best dishes are tomatosauced, the kind of light, zippy, fresh-tasting tomato sauce that is nearly unknown outside of Italy. The tomato sauce bejewels broiled scampi and veal with mozzarella. Spiced with bacon and pepper, it turns bucatini all'amatriciana into a memorable pasta. Romeo and Juliet understands veal and cooks vegetables carefully. But there are too many slips between the kitchen and the dining room. The waiter railroads you into ordering his suggestion. Spiedino id mozzarella is served cold and coagulated. Scallops are overcooked and bitter, and dish after dish tastes tired, reheated, from the mushrooms to the cake. As a finale, however, the cannoli is unsurpassed this far from Sicily.

3 Brothers

6160 Greenbelt Rd., Greenbelt. 475-5330. L and D $1.50-$3.75. L and D daily, closed Sun.No credit cards.

Grocery, carryout and mini-restaurant, 3 Brothers is a hectic mall shop with mama frying eggplant in an iron skillet while pizza ovens dominate one end, steam table the other end of the self-service counter. Portions are oversize and prices undersize. Don't expect much from a $2.25 veal parmesan sandwich, but believe the menu when it touts the specialties: a dough-wrapped Italian boat ballasted with sausage, meatballs, cheese, mushrooms, green peppers and onions; or a giant of a calzone.

Tiberio

1915 K St. NW. 452-1915. L $7.50-$8.50, D $12.95-$15.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V.

For a restaurant as elegant, ambitious and successful as Tiberio, it slips up surprisingly often. The room is pretty - white and bright and jeweled with roses and abstract paintings. The service is polished but indifferent, forgetting several things (like the vegetables) each time I have visited. The wine list is exorbitant, but extensive and careful to the point of listing American wines with Italian names separately. While ingredients on the long Franco-Italian menu are impecable, and pasta can be silky, I have had bland fettucine dry on the top as if it had been reheated, and cannelloni crunchy with bits of gristle and tasting tired. Simple veal is the safest main course, though fish can be special, and steaks are cooked rare and crusty. The dessert selection is picture-pretty, but ranges from excellent buttery, shortcrusted tarts to soggy ones with canned fruit, all of them priced for perfection. Tiberio is a restaurant of ambition and character, but too often allows its edges to fray.

Tony Coletta's

5225 Pooks Hill Rd., Bethesda. 530-5534. L $1.15-$3.50, D $3.75-$8.50. L and D daily, closed Mon. AE, MC, NAC, V.

In this Valentine-red luncheonette, the waiters may not know anything about the food, the wine list may consist of bringing out a few bottles to show you, and the tablecloths may be stained, but the kitchen exhibits unexpected expertise. Mushrooms are stuffed with fresh crab. Seafood Caruso mixes shrimp and scallops in a highly seasoned, buttery wine and cream sauce. The veal may lack innate character, but it is cooked and seasoned with flair. The flaws - drab salad, insufficient cheese in the fettucine - can be disappointing, but the kitchen can shine.

Tony's Conca d'Oro

1742 L St. NW. 296-6640. L $3-5.25, D$4.45-$7.75. L and D daily, closed Sun. AE, CB, D, MC, V.

Tony's is the other half of the tiny L Street Via Veneto, its outdoor cafe back-to-back with Lenzo's. Inside, the wrought iron and bunches of grapes theme tells you it is an Italian restaurant. The single dish to order is eggplant carrettiera, with a light fresh tomato sauce, garlic and herbs. Otherwise, a meal is a matter of limp spaghetti in a thick acid red sauce, preformed ground veal patties, and ravioli mushy enough to be canned. Sandwiches must be the thing.

Toscanini

313 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 544-2338. L $3.50-$3.95, D $5.95-$9.50. L daily ex Sat, D daily. AE, D, V.

With a new chef since my visit, Toscanini is in the midst of revising its menu. But it will still retain its individuality. Toscanini is divided into several dining rooms, upstairs and downstairs, each of them simple but attractive, each with an intimacy and dignity that one might seek for a long, leisurely dinner. The service is solicitous, prompt, good humored. Generous spirit prevails, from the waiters telling you which fish are frozen and which fresh, to the remarkable price of $1.75 for any pasta as an appetizer or side order. The wine list is not only reasonable, but well chosen. The menu has gone on for a dozen pages; it could use paring. But it should retain the likes of broccoli with pine nuts, raisins and almonds, and fried artichoke hearts. Sauces have needed improvement, and the veal has needed upgrading. For a long while, the beef dishes have been best. The signs are optimistic for Toscanini.

Trattu's

1823 Jefferson Pl. NW. 466-4570. L $3- $6, D $4- $8. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. AE, CB, MC, V.

Every diner's dream is a moderately priced restaurant with delicious food, central location, attentive staff and charming environment. That's Trattu. Trattu is very small, and its close tables encourage conviviality rather than privacy. It menu is small, and its service falters on a busy night. But the food is fine, with elegant pastas such as agnolotti or linguine with red caviar and cream at two-thirds the price of the better-known downtown Northern Italian restaurants. For main courses try the veal, particularly Vitello Trattu with red peppers and mushrooms, or lamb roasted with garlic and rosemary. Wines are reasonable. Desserts are forgettable. But dinner at Trattu can be memorable.v. erona

702 King St., Alexamdria. 548-9404. L and D $1.95-$8.25. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun. No credit cards.

Fans of the old Verona out in the Virginia countryside will be glad to hear it has reappeared in Alexandria. But it still needs some adjusting to its new environment.The bare looking restaurant has a drab, unfinished look, but nice people look after your welfare there. The menu is short, but needs to phase out a few more dishes. Sauces tend to be highly seasoned, original, interesting. And the dishes to order are the unusual ones such as chicken leg stuffed with veal, the ground meat pungent with black pepper, the sauce a mushroom cream. Scallops are cooked (sometimes overcooked) in a slightly sweet tomato onion sauce of character, and cannelloni is bold and tangy and very appealing. Skip the veal dishes altogether, and don't even pause at the home made pastries which are a dead ringer for frozen commercial pastries. With such low prices and eager demeanor, Verona can survive many a kitchen error. And with time the talent may show more consistency.

Yolanda's al Campidoglio

223 Pennysylvania Ave. SE. 544-6603. L $2.75-$3.95, D $4.50-$8.95. L daily ex Sat, D daily, closed Sun, AE, CB, MC, V.

While the food is obviously not a strong drawing card at Yolanda's, it has enough amenities to keep a steady following. For one, the front room, its fireplace blazing in winter, is delightful for a drink and - if you can wait for the slow kitchen to accommodate - buttery clams oreganato or piquant, tomato-sauced steamed mussels. These are the best of the kitchen's productions. Moving to the dining room, Handsomely outfitted with Mexican tiles and skylights, the willing service and moderate prices compensate for the menu's disappointments.Pastas are homemade, but those delicate al dente fettucine and toretellini deserve better sauces. While the veal is pale and of high quality, and the fish is cooked precisely, they, too, suffer from indifferent sauces.

Zebra Room

3238 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 362-8307. L $2.50-$6.50, D $3- $7. Open daily. MC, V.

More a bar than a restaurant, Zebra Room employs the kind of tough-taling, shuffling waitresses who leave you alone but serve you swiftly. The crowd is a pizza crowd, particularly on half-price days. And the pizza is distinctive, flaky-crusted and spicy, thickly paved with complicated combinations of toppings. There is little else on the menu: spaghetti, ravioli, lasagna, sandwiches and a few American dishes. And the veal is ground veal patties cut into strips. Unambitious fare. But the house tomato sauce has flair, and the calzone is a knockout, its flaky dough packed with ricotta, mozzarella, mushrooms, sausage and whatever you request, topped with that pleasant tomato sauce. It makes one of the better $2 meals in town. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By John Pack