For many years this was thest Italian restaurant in town. Now competition is stiffer and instead I would call it the most eccentric Italian restaurant in town. While in the past year there have been reports of the restaurant slipping, I have found it as exciting -- and as flawed -- as ever.

At Cantina you can count on impeccable ingredients and the heaviest, richest food left in the '80s. So you might want to start gently with a tomato-basil salad or marinated seafood. But you will certainly want to try such oddball pastas as lemon (tart and terrific) or tricolor spaghetti. Pasta sauces veer from gorgonzola to lobster essence, and while pastas are often oversauced -- fairly sloshing in pools of sauce -- they have bright, bold and vibrant flavors. Watch out for greasiness -- fried mozzarella is delightfully stuffed with gorgonzola, but its crumb coating is soggy from excess butter. And be warned that veal dishes are huge, made with exceptionally good meat, but are also heavy handed. Such light foods as fish -- especially when baked in parchment, but any way they are served -- show Cantina at its best. The fish are the plumpest, the cooking is the most careful, the seasoning is the most fragrant, and the sauces are lighter than those for meats. And there are some exceptional desserts -- although as heavy. Chocolate espresso cheesecake, several inches high and as dark as it is dense, has become legendary.

The other legend, less worth propagating, though, is Cantina's menu. For decades now it has remained unreadable, despite its being revised constantly. One wonders if that is only an excuse for more contact with the waiters and maitre d'hotel, for their personalities are among Cantina's strengths. Here is a restaurant that not only is closed Saturday nights, but sends its customers to its rivals.

Cantina overfeeds you with heavy foods and charms you into loving it for its faults as well as despite them. Its prices are high but you won't find a more individual restaurant anyplace. 1214-A 18th St. NW. 659-1830. L $10.75-$19, D $10.75-24. L, D daily. Closed Sat, Sun. AE, DC, CB, C, MC, V. Res req. Full bar.