{sstar} (1 star) San Vito Ristorante Italiano

13340 Franklin Farm Rd. (in Franklin Farm Village Center, at Fairfax County Parkway), Herndon. 703-707-6400. www.sanvitorestaurant.com

Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 3:30 to 10 p.m., Friday 3:30 to 11 p.m., Saturday 2:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday 2:30 to 10 p.m.; for breakfast Saturday and Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted for parties of six or more. Smoking at outdoor tables only. Parking lot. Prices: lunch appetizers $3.95 to $7.95, entrees $6.25 to $11.95; dinner appetizers $3.95 to $9.75, entrees $7.75 to $17.95. Full dinner with beer, tax and tip $30 to $40 per person.

At 7 o'clock on a Friday night, there is stroller gridlock just inside the entrance of San Vito Ristorante Italiano. The place is jumping -- that is, if you are, let's say, beyond the age of 3. The little ones in strollers are snoozing. One dad dressed in sweat clothes has a passed-out toddler thrown over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Equally laid-back and dressed-down moms have sleepy-eyed kids prone next to them in a number of the upholstered booths.

Since I don't have a reservation, I find a space to cool my heels for what turns out to be a 45-minute wait, back by the wood-burning pizza oven. There, at a small, copper-accented bar, I order and receive, promptly, a cold Moretti draft beer. When I ask a guy lingering nearby, "Is it always like this?" he replies, "Well, out here it's hard to find a place to take the family that isn't some chain."

That in itself explains a good part of San Vito's charm. Since it opened a year ago in a Herndon strip mall, this casual trattoria has become a family dining destination. And at San Vito, there is no reason adults have to put up with boring food just to keep the children happy.

Appropriately enough, the restaurant's staff is a family affair. Owner and chef Gian Piero Mazzi, formerly executive chef at Elysium, the high-end restaurant in the Morrison House hotel in Alexandria, now works alongside his brother, a cousin and his father-in-law. After three years at Elysium, Mazzi says, he was ready to go out on his own, serving the simple, rustic food he likes best. His menu is large and, for the most part, fairly standard -- pasta and pizza -- with the exception of the daily specials, which show the kitchen's attention to detail, at significantly higher prices.

Over the course of three evenings, I learned to expect the unexpected, sometimes in a good way and sometimes more regrettably. For one thing, you must know that there are specials. Some menus list them on a separate page. Others don't list them at all. The waiters I encountered, for the most part friendly fellows, didn't bother to mention them. But if you can find the specials, they're well worth it.

Take the sea bream special I tried one night. Rarely have I come across a more succulent and flaky little pan-fried fish, dotted with capers and black olive bits, lightly seasoned to show off its oily and fishy-in-a-good-way flavor. A mound of outstanding, plump steamed mussels shared the plate -- really a platter -- and created a very appetizing presentation. The veal chop special combined two large, perfectly cooked pieces of tender meat, bathed in a honey-colored rosemary sauce, with a double carb-load of addictive potato gratin and linguine topped with fresh-tasting marinara sauce. Just as appealing was the osso buco, a tremendous portion of moist shank in a rich mushroom sauce: Italian comfort food, perfectly seasoned. The appetizer specials have also been worthwhile. One night's salad balanced peppery arugula, roasted red bell peppers and a generous shaving of Romano cheese.

The regular menu holds some winners, too. To begin, there are terrific, tender whole grilled squid that rest atop a bed of crunchy lettuce and chopped tomato, drizzled with aromatic basil pesto. A squeeze of lemon plays perfectly off the smoky, garlicky flavor. I'm also fond of the fried calamari, which are soft and lightly battered, although the accompanying tomato-based dipping sauce needs a little zip. The grilled portobello mushrooms are the best part of the otherwise ho-hum antipasto platter. Why not skip the platter, with its rubbery mozzarella cheese strips, and just order the portobellos a la carte? You can't go wrong with the Caesar salad, made of romaine chunks tossed with a pleasing anchovy-laced dressing.

Among entrees, the excellent shrimp scampi is light and inviting, infused with garlic in a delicate lemon-butter sauce. The fine sauteed flounder is served over al dente linguine, alongside more of those super mussels, but is weighed down by too much of a too-strong rosemary-infused oil. And the veal marsala, when I tried it, was overcooked and drowning in a very boozy wine sauce.

San Vito's wine list is a weak point. With only half a dozen ordinary Italian non-vintage choices, by the glass or carafe, there is no decent wine to speak of. There is some fine regional Italian cooking here that deserves a better accompaniment. Bread, too, is iffy. More than once, we were given a bread basket that had clearly been picked over by some other table before us. Ick. But one evening, a very authentic loaf of warm, northern Italian-style peasant bread, tough as terrazzo on the outside and enjoyably doughy within, brought back memories of Milan to my dining pals.

Kids will love the predictable pasta dishes, such as spaghetti and meatball, vegetarian lasagna and fettuccine alfredo, all classic renditions of old favorites with absolutely no surprises. The pretty, bubble-edged pizzas have tasty and creative toppings. I'm particularly fond of the Palermitana, with yummy grilled artichokes, black olives and salami. But twice I've wondered why these good pizzas are soggy in the center. The answer: There is too much cheese.

The desserts can be deceiving. At the appropriate time, a waiter brings a tray to the table laden with maybe eight little plates of eye-catching pastry -- cream puffs, fruit tarts and, of course, tiramisu. Choose one, and back it comes a few minutes later, but with far more than you'd bargained for. That tiramisu, which would have been lovely on its own, is awash in Bosco-style chocolate syrup and about an alp's worth of out-of-the-can whipped cream. It's such a shame. And the Nutella-stuffed calzone is the size of a catcher's mitt. If there are simple berries, have them instead.

San Vito's decor has personality to spare. Romanesque brick arches give the spacious room a vaulted effect that appears to go on and on. Within each arch is a postcard-style painting of an Italian landmark: the Tower of Pisa, the Amalfi coast and, of course, the Colosseum. A series of tall white columns wrapped in silk grapevines nicely sections off the space. It's an oh-so-Italian place to be.

Herndon is fortunate to have a family-owned restaurant for families who need an Italian night out. Definitely consider the grilled squid, Caesar salad and sea bream, if it's available. You won't be disappointed. And wake up the kids. They'll love the lasagna.

Walter Nicholls is a staff writer for The Post's Food section. Tom Sietsema is on assignment.