RAVELLO

1776 E. Jefferson St., Rockville. 984-2550. Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for dinner Monday through Saturday 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. Reservations suggested. AE, DC, MC, V. Prices: Dinner appetizers about $5, pastas about $10, entrees about $16. Complete dinner with wine, tax and tip about $33 to $48 per person.

Have you seen Rockville Pike lately? It looks like an embryonic Crystal City, with hotels and "office-retail complexes" bursting out of the earth like mushrooms after a summer rain. The fertilizer for all this growth, of course, is the extension of Metro's Red Line along the pike, a move guaranteed to bring the city to the suburbs -- or at least to the high-density strip above the subway tracks. And that's sure to spawn a new crop of upscale restaurants catering to the hotel-office trade. Ravello, a pricey Italian restaurant specializing in seafood, is apparently one of the first arrivals.

Ravello has been open only since late November, so it's just a tentative evaluation. But there are considerable strengths already apparent, as well as some weaknesses in service and quality control -- problems common to many new restaurants, but especially noticeable in a place where entrees are in the $16 range and where a plate of linguine with tomato sauce costs $8.75.

The dining room is instantly forgettable but pleasant nonetheles, soft lighting and good acoustics. The upscale aspirations are evident as soon as you are seated: the steep prices on the dinner menu (they don't get much cheaper at lunch), the black ties on the waiters, the complimentary bottle of mineral water on the table, the high- quality Italian bread in the basket. The wine list is small, Italian, well chosen and moderately priced. Service, although friendly and well meaning, can also be capricious. One night the appetizers, salads and entrees arrived almost simultaneously; on another visit, we waited nearly half an hour while the waiter figured and refigured the check; and on another occasion we were seated and ignored for so long that we finally had to go and find the manager to ask him for a waiter. Temporary growing pains, no doubt, but still vexing.

In most restaurants, the antipasto is nothing more than an Italian deli platter. Not at Ravello. This antipasto is a not-to- be-missed gem, perhaps the most delightful dish in the house. Served from a rolling cart, it may include such treats as fresh baked oysters, tender scallops, shrimp and whole calamari glistening with good olive oil and fresh parsley, an excellent swordfish salad, cold spinach, the smokiest of smoked salmon, and artichoke hearts stuffed with herbed and garlicked bread crumbs. At $4.75 for an assortment, it's one of the few bargains to be had here. Among the other appetizers are some good steamed and baked shellfish and a creditable green salad, but none are a match for the antipasto.

Pasta dishes, which can be served as entrees or split as appetizers, have been consistently excellent, the pasta itself nicely firm and the sauces fresh tasting, well executed and applied sensibly -- meaning that they coat rather than bury the pasta. Rigatoni carbonara may be the very best of the lot, with plenty of lean bacon that seems to have been blanched first to remove the salt, bits of still-crunchy onion for texture, and what tastes like a dash of lemon juice to cut the richness of the egg. Linguine with mussels has a fine, mild tomato sauce, chunky, fruity and nicely laced with garlic. On the linguine with crab meat the tomato sauce is more peppery, and on the linguine alla puttanesca it's more complex, with ripe olives, capers and a touch of anchovy. The simplest pasta has something to say for itself, too: linguine with clams is a pale delight, is sauce nothing more than the clam juice with just enough oil to coat the pasta, plus salt, pepper and garlic.

The inconsistencies center on the seafood. It's been perfectly fresh -- no problem there -- but the fish dishes in particular too often suffer from carelessness or inattention in the kitchen. One night, for example, the grilled tuna entree was hopelessly dried out from too much cooking, and yet the piece of tuna on the combination grilled seafood platter was nicely succulent. And on that same combination platter, two tender, sweet scallops rubbed elbows with a couple of dry, iodine-tasting shrimp and a good slab of grilled rockfish. Yet the rockfish served alone as an entree -- same table, same night -- was overdone and mushy. On another night the fish was simply flawless: moist, delicate salmon that had been taken off the grill at just the right moment, and a wonderfully juicy, flavorful swordfish.

Zuppa di mare was another mixed bag, very generous with the seafood and with a delightful sauce of tomato, parsley and olive oil, but suffering from that same old consistency bugaboo: this time excellent clams, calamari and mussels co-existed with mushy scallops and dry, tasteless shrimp and fish.

We found the saltimbocca strangely dull -- high-quality ingredients but somehow zipless, as though the kitchen had run out of herbs. A better veal choice -- in fact, a gem of a dish -- is veal piccata, the pale medallions of meat dressed only by lemon, fresh garlic and just enough butter for flavor. Just as impressive when we tried it was Pollo Ravello, a remarkably juicy chicken breast stuffed with spinach and a little ham and provolone. Without the excess of butter and cheese that so often drag down this kind of dish, the chicken and spinach flavors have a chance to shine through.

When it's time to choose a dessert, stick to the simple things prepared in-house: fresh berries in a wonderful zabaglione sauce, eggy and laced with plenty of sweet marsala wine; or the Bongo Bongo -- cream puffs filled with a velvety custard and topped with excellent dark chocolate.

Even at this early stage, it's obvious that Ravello has lots of potential. It already does pasta with the best of them, and seafood, too, when the kitchen is clicking. If it can start clicking every night, Ravello could mature into a real jewel. Metro might be the best thing that's happened to restaurants since the credit card.