Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner Monday through Thursday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Prices: Dinner appetizers $4.75 to $5.95, main dishes $6.75 to $16.95. Full dinner with modest wine, tax and tip about $18 to $28 per person.

Restaurants are like people: you can often tell a lot about

them by the way they present themselves. But some times you can be fooled. Take Avanti.

First vibrations were all negative. In the Yellow

Pages, our fingers walked up to the Avanti ad and found a couple of ominous phrases: "For your dining pleasure" and "Italian-American" cuisine (nearly as high on the caution scale as "Chinese-American"). So we headed for Howard County without much hope. Our hearts sank further at first sight of the place, a nondescript box of a building at a forlorn intersection, its nearest neighbor advertising new and used tires. Then, on the side of the building, we caught sight of an omen so potent as to frighten off even the most intrepid eater: a picture of a tipped champagne glass with bubbles coming out the top. As we entered, visions of antacids danced in our heads.

Surprise! A big, good-looking, candlelighted dining room, well filled even on a weekday night with what looked like serious eaters; a waitress overheard explaining with pride that only fresh tomatoes and garlic were used in the kitchen; and an attractive menu listing homemade pastas and sausage, some interesting appetizers, and eight varieties of veal. "What's a nice Italian restaurant like you doing in a place like this?" we murmured. And nice it was. Pretty terrific, in fact.

The soups were outstanding. Minestrone was practically solid with lean meat and lively vegetables, and the sausage and green pepper soup, an occasional special, was a gem. Most appetizers are big enough for two, and so many are so good it's hard to choose. Simplest was roasted sweet peppers, saut,eed briefly in oil and minced garlic. Mussels posillipo were served in a good, chunky tomato sauce. Better yet, shrimp scampi (also available as an entree) were big and sweet, and bathed in a beautiful, lemony sauce with minced garlic, parsley and a touch of white wine. (The shrimp also comes with a combination seafood appetizer, which suffered one night from softish clams.) There's a good combination cold appetizer with a creditable pesto sauce that tasted of fresh basil, and a delicious conch salad, the conch slices tender and fresh and the oil- lemon-herb sauce deepened by a little grated cheese. As if all that weren't enough, the pastas can be shared as appetizers. One of the best ways is with the good gnocchi, ordered in the optional "Addario style"--a special tomato sauce thickened with grated provolone.

Veal dishes are big and robust. The meat isn't the palest or most delicate you've ever seen, but it is of good quality, and there's plenty of it. We have three favorites: veal giardino, a beautiful dish to the eye, the veal saut,eed with sparkling fresh vegetables in a simple white wine sauce; veal siciliano, similarly sauced but with green and black olives; and veal sambuco, an imaginative, well-conceived dish in which the veal, stuffed with ham and cheese (just a little, and sensibly so) is served on a bed ofhat has been saut,eed in oil, lemon, garlic and bacon, the smoky flavors permeating the vegetable. (Note, too,he veal is available as an outstanding side order.) The mammoth "braciole-homemade" is a good rendition in whiper retained some juiciness in the cooking, and in which the egg and cheese in the rolled-up filling remained firmly intact.

Shrimp was generally very good--plump, sweet and tender. Although the calamari weren't the tenderest we've had, they too were fine, complemented on a gargantuan platter by an excellent marinara sauce chunky with tomato and onion. (Look for that same sauce with shrimp and spaghetti, too.) Speaking of red sauces, the eggplant parmigiana and lasagna were good versions, in which vegetable, pasta and cheese were firm and tasty. Even fettucinerhaps the most abused restaurant dish of our time, came off reasonably well here--chewy pasta, a delicate, nongummy sauce that was applied sparingly, cheese you could actually taste, and the zip of fresh garlicken marsala was a handsome dish--succulent strips of chicken breast in a soft, velvety marsala sauce that made e between sweet booziness on the one hand and blandness on the other. The chicken here apparently has its ups a tough, stringy chicken calabrese, followed by a fine version on another night.

A nice side order is the homemade sausage, rough textured and not fatty, if a bit bland. A not-so-nice side order is the spaghetti that comes with the entrees. Four attempts to get it al dente failed (although in each case the waitress noted it on her pad), and the red sauce is unpleasantly overacid. Better to choose the optional salad, big, crisp, and with a very good house dressing. One of ry few discordant notes on the menu is the garlic bread--two slices of what looks like a sub roll split lengthwise for $2.25. To make matters the regular (free) bread is excellent, a fine, hearth- baked Italian loaf.

Most desserts are outstanding. Cannoli, made in house, was unusually delicate, the wrapper thin and crisp, the filling lighter and less sweet than most. Tortoni was the genuine article, rich and eggy. Cakes were very good, the rum cake properly sloshed at the bar just before serving.

So ends the tale of a pleasant surprise. Our original proposition still holds: most of the time you can tell a book by its cover, or a resturant by its trappings. But getting fooled now and then is what makes the whole thing interesting.