1214-A 18th St. NW. 659- 1830. L $9.50-$13.50, D $13.50-$22.00. L, D daily ex Sat, Sun. AE, CB, C, DC, MC, V. Res sugg. Full bar.

The food would have to be good to put up with closely packed tables in a series of small stucco dining rooms of no subtlety, with a menu that is unreadable, in a restaurant that is closed Saturday and Sunday and priced with the haughtiest. Well, the food at Cantina, year after year (decades now) remains exciting. Cantina changes constantly and invents daily. The fried mozzarella here might be stuffed with gorgonzola; the fettucine alfredo might have the cheese in the pasta dough rather than in the sauce. And the ingredients are spectacular, the cooking talented, the service expert. Start with a lavish seafood salad or the best tomatoes with the best mozzarella and the freshest basil. Don't miss the pasta, homemade, in original and complex sauces. Main dishes are almost superfluous and always enormous, but how za-size fcan one not try veal scallops on a bed of pesto with cream or breaded with sardo cheese. In midwinter tackle the rabbit or the duck with raisins, sausage and marsala. The espresso cheesecake tastes sensational. And the wine list has an Italian soul.