One of the best restaurants in Washington, encrusted with the symbols of international credit, is sandwiched between a discotheque and a stereo shop. Open the door, and the subverting aroma of garlic and hot olive oil flows out into the federal atmosphere. Stairs lead steeply downward, the brass rail held in place with masking tape. A contented murmur older than history rises from the basement--the sound of people eating together.

The smells grow more complicated as you descend: fresh basil, saut,eed veal, melted parmesan cheese, dark Colombian roast coffee. The customers have a slightly dazed look. Apparently something extraordinary happened to them between the antipasto and the final glass of anisette--a collision of cholesterol with the culinary mysteries of northern Italy. Last year there were about 50,000 customers here, and they left behind about $1.3 million.

The restaurant, the Cantina d'Italia, lacks the atmosphere, and the hauteur, of the gilded palaces of continental cuisine; its prices, however, are equally formidable. It has only 22 tables tightly arranged beneath a low ceiling, and no public bar. Plaster deities gaze out from white stucco walls; locked wine racks contain recumbent bottles with place names like Barolo, Barbaresco and Asti. Beyond a swinging door, a dimly lighted corridor leads back to the kitchen, which has less working space than most kitchens in private homes. Out of its highly organized, multilingual bedlam come 500 courses and special orders every day, Monday through Friday.

Contrary to popular thought, the restaurant business may well be the world's oldest profession. The word restaurant comes from "restore," to bring back into existence, to renew. In the District there are 800 such restoratory establishments, where people go to be sociable, glean information, cut deals, and, especially, to eat. Food is the most important element, but a restaurant's success also involves a mix of atmosphere and service known as "dollar value."

Most customers only glimpse the subtle forces at play behind the menu and the decor--personality, individual taste, trust and courage. They have little idea of the daily grind and complication in the life of a restaurant, which can end precipitously after a few ill-conceived dishes, late deliveries, a thievish waiter, an alcoholic cook or an alcoholic customer, or something as God-given as a flooded basement. Running a good restaurant requires some business acumen and mental coordination and a lot of motor control, moral stamina and a rare asset best described as inspiration. The quality of that inspiration can distinguish a wonderful restaurant from a merely good one.

Cantina reflects the style, and sometimes the obsessions, of the man who created it, Joseph Muran deAssereto, a voluble Frenchman with an Italian name and some unorthodox notions concerning his trade. Cantina is closed on weekends and legal holidays, for example, when most other restaurants have to use shoe- horns to accommodate the hungry. (Joseph believes his help deserve weekends off.) A notice posted outside Cantina directs prospective customers to other restaurants, a beau geste, Joseph would call it. Most of his competitors would call it suicidal. They might call Joseph's pricing suicidal too--his food costs are 42 percent of what he charges, instead of the typical 37 or 38 percent.

"Joseph is an artist; he's not afraid to create," says a local writer whose subject is food. "He's incorruptible--the only restaurateur in town who insists upon paying for samples," says a vintner who provides Cantina with many of its 74 different Italian wines. A fresh produce supplier, who got into the basil-growing business just to meet the Cantina's needs, says: "Joseph's always looking for the best. He never threatens to take his business elsewhere, so we break our necks to help him." A man who seeks out rare cheeses, sausages and condiments for the Cantina says, "Joseph teaches people to make a romance of food."

At lunch he emerges from the back of the restaurant with a red napkin tied around his neck, the sleeves of his chef's shirt rolled up to reveal lean, splatter-burned forearms. The smoky, pan-bashing intensity of the kitchen has set his whitish hair on end, but his demeanor--the slightly mournful smile, the resonant French accent and Italian gestures-- clearly states that Cantina belongs to him. At night he turns the cooking over to someone else, puts on tie and jacket and deftly maneuvers among the forest of oversize, daunting, hand-written menus, enthusiastically explaining the Piedmontese, Ligurian and Val d'Aostan dishes.

Cantina's customers include businessmen, journalists, bureaucrats and lawyers. One law firm maintains a permanent table. A lawyer with another firm ordered veal with rosemary so often that Joseph named the dish after him. And although Cantina gets a share of celebrities--Johnny Carson once sang to his wife over brightly colored fettucine-- most customers are repeaters.

"We take clients there," says an admitted partisan, "who tell us Cantina's better than Italian restaurants in Little Italy, better than in Italy itself. The waiters are superb, gracious. I get sick and tired of phony French waiters in this town where you have to pay $100 for an unpleasant put-on. The tables at Cantina may be too close together and the bathroom dingy, but the people and the food make all that irrelevant."

Joseph's French-Italian ancestry enlivens his personality, and his cooking. "My stomach is in Italy," he says, "my heart in France." He will denounce French pretensions to culinary superiority. Yet if you point out that it was 16th-century Italians who supposedly taught the French to cook, Joseph bristles. "So Catherine de Medici decided to sleep with the dauphin and become an arriviste. The French weren't savages, you know."

His father's family was Genoese; they removed themselves to France a century before the Medicis. Joseph's friends and acquaintances must accept a reticence about much of his past. "My private life is my own," he says, smiling and forming a box in the air, a characteristic gesture.

His early avatar wasn't Escoffier, or Luigi Carnicina, whose book on Italian cooking Joseph treats with reverence, but the photographer Robert Capa. In New Orleans, he realized he could not survive as a photographer, and went to work making garlic bread in the famous French Quarter restaurant, Brennan's. His choice launched him on a restoratory journey that led through dining rooms in parts of this country and Canada, and through kitchens in Genoa and Turin, to the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and 18th Street.

"I developed an idea of the kind of restaurant I wanted to run, one where the help could feel like human beings. I didn't want a French restaurant--there are too many of those--or a spaghetti house. Southern Italian cooking has been trivialized in this country." He wanted a pleasant restaurant with uncompromisingly good food, what he calls "a comfortable, honorable place."

The realization wasn't easy. Two of Joseph's former wives contributed to, and worked in, the restaurant; only Joseph's marriage to Cantina survived.

He works 14 hours a day, five days a week. On Saturdays he comes in to invent a menu for the following Monday, then goes off to visit with suppliers. On Sundays he often goes to New York, to shop for specialty food and hardware.

Joseph's private life may be his own, but it's clear that Cantina is the mainstay of that life. For a couple of hours every afternoon he returns to his condominium a block away, where he reads--often literature related to the business--and listens to the same operetta and cabhe Caaret music played in the restaurant. He sometimes takes staff members from Cantina to another Washington restaurant, often down the street to Le Lion d'Or; occasionally he goes to parties, although he prefers meeting people behind the tables at Cantina.

Italian cooking is really a medley of regional dishes. Joseph's own approach rests on a foundation of milk-fed veal, plum tomatoes, fresh basil, garlic and olive oil. One of the cornerstones is pesto. Another is cheeses--Val d'Aosta fontina, gorgonzola, creamy mascherpone from Lombardy and Reggio parmesan that lend a permanent savor to the kitchen.

Joseph builds with butter, cream, eggs, mushrooms, battuto (chopped celery, carrots, onion and prosciutto fat), a perfumed mixture of mostly tarragon and virgin olive oil called olio verde, baxaico (a Genoese concoction of marinated basil, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and diced whole-milk mozzarella), crusty bread, polenta, Piedmontese rice. From Liguria come seafood recipes--squid and mussels in redolent tomato sauce--and aromatic herbs. He dips to Naples for pasta with mozzarella and tomato sauce, and reaches into Calabria for baked breaded oysters, but such southerly excursions are rare.

Seven o'clock on a Friday morning finds Joseph in the kitchen, holding a stewing hen over a four-gallon pot. He has been up since 6. Breakfast was sugared black coffee and a Gauloise. While he smoked, a cherubic assistant named Lupe carried the day's "preps" --onions and peppers chopped the day before by Lupe's afternoon counterpart, pesto, marinated rabbit and mussels covered with seaweed--from the walk-in refrigerator to the kitchen, past bundles of dirty laundry in the corridor. Then the two of them threw out yesterday's lentil soup and all the sauces.

"People who pay these prices have been around; they know when food isn't fresh."

The hen goes into the pot, along with trimmed chicken and veal bones, vegetable peelings, whole heads of garlic, lemon juice, white wine, lemon pepper and Old Bay seasoning. The egg whites go in to clarify the soup; the crushed shells follow. "They collect the scum," which is skimmed off. Joseph fine-tunes with a handful of salt, dried basil, sage and oregano, bay leaves and peppercorns, and covers the pot. The day has officially begun.

"Planning and execution, that's the restaurant business. You're always working against the clock, and something always goes wrong."

The four Vulcan stoves give off an intense, even heat. Dozens of battered skillets with long metal handles are stacked on the warming shelf; the sauce pans, large enough to hold basketballs, have scorched black patinas. Inside, the scoured aluminum gleams. The stoves, the broiler and the exhaust system cost $35,000.

Lupe and another helper slice potatoes with butcher knives honed by an itinerant knife-sharpener who charges $9 for a weekly visit, one of many hidden costs. Joseph pays $210 a month to have his garbage hauled away. This month his electricity bill will be about $700; rental on the security system is $72 a month. Book matches bearing Cantina's logo cost $700 a year.

Joseph tosses a pound of butter cut into chunks into each of two big roasting pans, adds crushed garlic, nutmeg, pepper and olive oil. Into one pan he dumps a bushel of spinach, sliced onions into the other, to be used in potatoes savoyarde, Cantina's creamy side dish. In a separate skillet he cooks onions for the zuppa di fontina e pane--cheese soup with bread chunks.

The first of many deliveries is transported down the iron stairs in the back: this one contains only ducks and chicken breasts from South Carolina, rabbits from Pennsylvania and eggs, butter, sugar and scouring pads. Friday's $335 delivery is small--Joseph does not want food sitting in the refrigerator over the weekend. There will be other deliveries, too.

More help arrives at 8--Willie Bryant, Joseph's lunch cook, and Willie's wife, Jerry, a friendly woman who acts as a combination patissiere, order-caller and overseer of the pasta and salad room. She begins to "pull the fridges," taking out strawberries for the amaretto fruit cup, meringues for the zuppa inglese (rum, white cr,eme de cacao and amaretto mixed with egg custard and sponge cake) and mascherpone for the cheese cake. "Joseph says if you like something you're making, then it'll taste good." She's on the Scarsdale diet.

Soon red and green fettucine--tomato and basil base--will hang from the pasta trees, and spaghetti made from dough forced between taut wires of the guitara with a rolling pin. At the height of the morning there are three cooks in the kitchen, two helpers in the salad room and two dishwashers who double as haulers, choppers and shell- scrubbers.

"You can't do it alone," says Joseph, an unlighted cigarette between his lips. "You need your soldiers." The waiters work a split shift, but he employs two barmen and two complete kitchen staffs. "I could get by with less. I could use one dishwasher, for instance, but it wouldn't be fair. The dishwashers are the unsung heroes of restaurants."

His weekly payroll is about $7,000. The night shift is already drifting in to pick up checks. Friday is what Joseph calls "stick-up day," and they want to get their money home before dark.

Joseph tells Willie to special-order 10 one-gallon cans of olive oil, and 30 pounds of sweet Italian sausage, some of which goes to stuff the canneloni. "I used to stuff it with chicken and veal, but a food reviewer didn't like it. You can learn from reviewers. Some restaurant owners go to the wailing wall when they get a bad review, but at least it lets you know what people expect." He prefers not to know food critics, and has told the waiters not to tell him when a critic is there.

The cashier arrives and goes over the accounts from the night before. To avoid being robbed, she leaves at a different time every day to make the bank deposit. A few steps away from her sits the seafood delivery: 16 dozen littleneck clams, a gallon of shucked oysters and two huge rockfish fillets that cost $137.50.

Joseph calls out, "It's Friday, boys!" He speculatively eats one of the steamed mussels, then another. During the day he will taste each sauce several times, but Cantina's ultimate products pass him by. "To eat, you have to relax. Here someone is always calling me--the clock is always winning." He keeps fresh tomatoes, fresh basil and fruit juices in his condominium. "I eat on the weekends."

His barman, Raymond, arrives at 9 and calls in a special order for marsala. He replaces the Perrier and tonic water, checks the coctail garnishes and the cappuccino machine. Many customers drink martinis, but vino is the staple. Raymond goes over the list of those sold the night before. He must get the same wines from the racks, which are locked because unsecured bottles even in the best restaurants have a tendency "to walk." He stacks the whites in the refrigerator. The cheapest bottles are the most inflated, the more expensive ones the best buys. For instance, a bottle of orvieto that costs Joseph $2.75 sells for $15, while the restaurant price of a $12.60 brunello is merely doubled, because the cost of handling and storing the bottles is the same.

The kitchen, the rabbit is cooking; the tomaxelles--rolled veal stuffed with sweetbreads and roasted pine nuts--are done. For Spaghetti Joseph, he spoons prosciutto fat into a roasting pan, adds oil from cooked sausage, $30 worth of mascherpone cheese, chopped fresh basil and salt. Pungent smoke leaps for the exhaust fan. Next come generous doses of Old Bay, Lawry's lemon pepper, ground coriander, nutmeg, battuto and chopped sausage. He pours in two quarts of whipping cream, rains fresh basil over the lot and pronounces it good. The irony is that Joseph does not like spaghetti.

A short, stocky figure in a beret carries in two bags of fresh bread, followed by the deliveryman from Washington Beef who unceremoniously stacks $1,116.43 worth of center-cut veal loins in the corridor. To the pile he adds $70 worth of veal chops and an 11-pound slab of bacon. An assistant cook in chef's hat and traditional checkered trousers, known as Chink, hauls the loins into the kitchen and expertly carves them into scaloppines, some to be rolled and stuffed with chopped prosciutto and mozzarella, the Ligurian messicani.

Willie cuts up the squid. Joseph takes California plum tomatoes out of an open can on the stove, squeezes out the seeds, and drops the tomatoes into the calamari sauce.

He's ready for the ducks. He ladles olive oil into another roasting pan, adds a double handful of fresh basil, battuto, prosciutto fat and a whole bowl of peeled garlic cloves. "Many people fear garlic, but once it's cooked it doesn't have a sharp taste. Just don't burn it."

He arranges a dozen orders of dressed duck in the pan, and pricks the skin with a fork to release the fat. He salts it heavily, adds the usual spices, plus marjoram and thyme, and blankets it with more basil. Later he pours off the fat, adds sausage fat, half a bottle of Mouquin brandy, a quart of freshly squeezed lemon juice, chopped sausage and three bottles of marsala. The rich, intoxicating smell of boiling liquor momentarily overwhelms the fans. Into the same pan go marinated sultana raisins and two quarts of cream. He asks Chink to taste the sauce, and on his advice adds more brandy. "To have something good, you have to spend money."

The kitchen has moved into second gear. Willie does hip swivels while pumping out mushroom silhouettes with a knife handle, trying to stay clear of the dishwasher. Chink shoves the trimmed veal bones off the table, and prepares lunch for the help: tomatoes, chicken and potatoes. The parboiled calamari goes into the sauce. Joseph tastes it. "When it's done, it's done. If we run out, I'm sorry. It's been cooked the right way."

The most memorable meal he ever prepared at Cantina was bollito misto for eight people. "It took me four days to collect everything--the brains, the cotechino sausage, the calves' hooves." He charged $20 per person, a bargain. Once a customer brought in his pocket a precious white Piedmontese truffle that he had smuggled into the United States; Joseph lovingly shaved bits of it into the man's fettucine with cream sauce.

The mussels go into the pesto, which gives off the powerful smell of basil. Chopped red peppers sizzle in another pan, the basis for the oyster sauce. The veal sauces --brandy cream and basil--are next on the working card. In the meantime, the Hudson Brothers order has arrived: knobby white heads of garlic, Spanish onions, mushrooms in wooden boxes, red cabbage, parsley, carrots, red and white grapes. "That's some pretty spinach," says Jerry.

The cashier takes the telephone reservations and checks the receipts from the previous night. She compares the computer's tab to the waiters' check duplicates, which will be rechecked by Maxine Boyd, Cantina's office manager who works in an office around the corner on Jefferson Place. The tab and dupes have recorded on them food orders, the time the customers arrive, when the order is taken, when the food is served and the table vacated. If a customer later complains about food or service, Joseph is able to produce the entire vita.

Once a woman claimed to have suffered a violent intestinal disorder after eating at Cantina. Joseph telephoned several other customers who had eaten the same things the woman ate and found none had been ill. "Then I saw that she and her associate had consumed several martinis, a bottle of wine and several after-dinner drinks." He sent her a check for the amount of the bill, and his sympathies.

The daytime hostess, Sabine, who is French, takes the reservation book from the office to the front of the restaurant. There she will answer the telephone throughout lunch. The book is constantly being amended, correction tape pasted in and new reservations recorded. The book is a compendium of past and future business. Its loss would be a major disaster.

The most difficult aspect of Sabine's job is dealing with people who claim to have reservations, but don't. "They always say their secretaries made the reservation." The worst offenders are members of Congress and embassy personnel who assume they are entitled to a table. "Once a Saudi offered me $300 for a table." The Saudi had to wait.

The waiters trickle in. Only one is Italian, the others French, Spanish, American and Guatemalan. Giles kisses Sabine on both cheeks in the traditional French manner, and looks over the reservation book to see who will be seated in his section. "The politics of lunch," says Dennis, the American, "is more important than the politics of dinner," when the prices are higher and people don't care so much about being seen. During the day, regular customers and prominent guests are given the more prominent tables, if that's what they want.

The waiters change out of street clothes in the tiny room next to the walk-in refrigerator. Each owns two tuxedos; for two grueling shifts, they earn about $100 a day in tips plus a minimal salary.

Waiters may not argue with a customer, but if Joseph believes a waiter is being abused, he quickly defends him. "Some customers are unhappy regardless. They could be served by the members of the Last Supper and still complain." Once a waiter took the top off the pepper grinder and poured peppercorns over the head of a complaining customer. Joseph fired him.

So far nothing has gone wrong. Joseph turns the kitchen over to Willie, and joins Boyd in the restaurant.

Boyd has checks for Joseph to sign and business to discuss. He pays $3,500 a month for his basement lease, and one-third of the real estate taxes. He pays medical insurance for all the help and gives regular raises. Joseph estimates that most people spend $30 for a meal at Cantina; many are deducted as business expenses. He has no illusions about the largess of the federal beast. "Washington really is recession-proof. Even during the riots, business was good."

A cashier who recently worked at Cantina altered charge account receipts and pocketed the difference in cash, Joseph says. She was caught, and fired, when a customer noticed the discrepancy on his monthly credit card statement. The cashier promised to pay back the money--$500--in regular installments if Joseph didn't bring in the police.

Now he asks if she has made the first payment, and Boyd tells him, "No. She says her mother died."

"She told me that when I hired her. I don't care if her mother died twice. If she doesn't pay by the end of the month, we call in the police." Then he changes his mind: "The D.C. jail is not a pleasant place."

Money flows into Cantina at a prodigious rate, and it flows out almost as fast. Veal, sweetbreads and bacon cost $6,000 a week, wine and liquor $2,000, cheese, sausage and specialty items $1,700. Cantina's profit last fiscal year was $84,000. Joseph's annual salary is more than $50,000, princely pay for a man who insists he is only a cook, not a chef. Most of the balance is going towards Cantina's renovations.

At 11:45, three businessmen appear at the bottom of the stairs. Sabine greets them and leads them to a table near Joseph.

"The first customers, and the last, are the most difficult," says Joseph. These first customers are having trouble with the menu, and he goes over to them. "Are you hungry today, gentlemen? Would you like some oysters Italian-style? Perhaps mushroom caps stuffed with fontina, gorgonzola, ricotta and mozzarella?" When they have recorded their fantasies about lunch, Joseph goes off for a manicure and a haircut at the Mayflower.

An hour later, the tables are almost all taken. One couple stands in the doorway, hoping there will be a cancellation. At the far end of the restaurant, out of sight, the kitchen has swung into high gear. Willie flails between stove and hot table, eyes slitted against the heat and smoke. The clash of metal almost drowns out Jerry's voice. She stands solidly in the middle of a swirling human current, shouting out orders from the waiters' dupes: "One messicani! ... One cuscinetti! ... One santarelli! ..." Golden yellow polenta is stacked on the warming shelf. Skillets and saut,e pans full of sausage, scalloped veal and chicken breasts cover the stove; long flames lick out of the broiler. Chink cooks the pasta orders in boiling pots, while the dishwashers scurry between the sink and the steaming dishwashing machine.

The waiters, jammed in the narrow entrance, set their own serving dishes on red napkins and wipe the edges of plates. This is a crucial time; an argument or a careless motion could bring chaos. But people give way naturally, the waiters retreating to the corridor to wait their turn. Others race for the dining room, their arms stacked with oval plates, in defiance of gravity. They push open the swinging door with a foot or a shoulder, and shake off the kitchen frenzy. With apparent lack of effort, they present the miracle of prepared food to those who will eat and pay for it.

A tray of soft drinks and beer goes out from the bar to the kitchen help. At 1:15 Willie takes a break and climbs the back stairs to the alley--known as "Willie's office"--for a smoke.

Jerry smokes while sitting on an up-ended milk crate in the airy corridor. "We're like a family here," she says. "If there's an argument, people come up at the end of the day and say they're sorry. Most of us have been here a long time. We know each other's habits and moods."

Willie comes back and says, "It's a beautiful day outside."

Most of the customers are gone by 3:30. The kitchen help leave after the dishes are washed and the preps ready for the night shift. Sabine is relieved by Anne-Marie, also French, who comes to Cantina from a day of teaching public school in Gaithersburg. The first two seatings for dinner are already taken.

The waiters return around 5, followed by Joseph, who wears a burgundy blazer designed by Bill Blass. The waiters eat dinner together, and Joseph raises his habitual glass of black coffee in a toast: "Vive le weekend!" He, too, looks tired, in spite of a nap at home.

The new kitchen staff is in place, under Jose Pinto, a stocky chef from Bolivia who cooks in jogging shoes.

At 6:02, two middle-aged couples arrive, eagerly shedding their coats, followed by a steady stream of customers. Joseph greets them at the tables, introduces them to their waiters, answers questions.

A young couple claims to have a reservation, but their name is not in the book. "I called yesterday," the woman tells Anne-Marie.

"But the tables were already taken yesterday."

"Well, I've been here before," she says desperately, watching a plate of assorted Italian sausage go past, garnished with mostarde de cremona--fruit in heavy syrup with hot mustard--and veal scaloppine in gruyMere cheese.

Anne-Marie gives them a table with the stipulation they will give it up by 8:30 for the next seating. "If she had really called yesterday," says Anne- Marie, "they would have been furious."

The customers include Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D- Ohio), whose red fettucine in olio verde gets cold when he goes to the telephone. It has to be saut,eed in olive oil. The owner and chef of Rive Gauche orders a bottle of Tattinger and is told in impeccable French that Cantina serves only Italian wines. He settles for half an order of fettucine with calamari, and rockfish. A regular customer requests rice cooked in barolo; Joseph does this himself, sharing the kitchen with Jos,e, patiently pouring $27 worth of wine into the rice. "I want to be here in the year 2000," he says, "when my lease runs out. If I sold Cantina, what would I do?"

Bianca Jagger comes in shortly before midnight and is seated in the back of the restaurant. Joseph's day is almost over. He checks the reservation book for the following Monday; he looks in on the night cashier. He won't know it until the tally's been done, but that day Cantina took in a total of $7,826.40. That included selling 39 bottles of wine, 62 servings of fettucine, 23 orders of cheesecake and 38 cappuccini. Roughly 200 glasses of anisette with floating moschi--coffee beans-- were given away. Tips amounted to a little over $1,000.

Joseph puts raw heads of garlic in his pocket and gorgonzola cheese to eat before bed. He slips into his overcoat and says good night to the remaining waiters, the barman and Anne-Marie. He leaves as the night porter arrives. The porter walks through the restaurant without noticing Bianca Jagger forking fettucine with mascherpone sauce into her escort's mouth. The porter is faced with a rear corridor full of garbage and eight hours of sweeping, mopping and hauling.

By 1:15 a.m., all employes have left except the cashier, the porter, a dishwasher and Giles, the waiter. He serves a lingering customer a glass of grappa, the powerful essence of the vine that leaves a smooth afterglow.

"Joseph knows how to be a friend, as well as a critic," he says. "This is his life; that's why the restaurant is so good. Without Joseph, Cantina would be nothing."