Open Tuesday through Friday, 1:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Reservations accepted. Major credit cards. Persons in wheelchairs accommodated.

We looked through the windows and saw the chairs stacked upside down on the tables. Closed. Disappointed and hungry, the seven of us stood on the sidewalk in Bethesda's commercial Woodmont section, which on Sunday evening is as deserted as a seaside boardwalk in January, and haggled about what to do next.

Somebody spotted a place called Buon Giorno down on the next corner. Its exterior was plain and austere, and the fully draped windows didn't permit snooping to see if Buon Giorno was in fact a restaurant, a beauty parlor or a bookie joint. Only the lateness of the hour and the keening of the children propelled me through the doors.

I now retract my unkind thoughts about Buon Giorno because what transpired for the next two hours was an almost perfect meal. The biggest drawback is that the prices might be high for families on a limited budget, but Buon Giorno should definitely be filed in the special occasions category. The bill for our family of four came to $44.50, including tip.

Only about 50 people can fit into the tiny restaurant, and the deliberately relaxed pace allows about two seatings of diners an evening. The smallness of the operation probably accounts for the imaginative cooking and the attention to detail.

The tables were immaculately set, each with its own vase of fresh flowers, but the feeling was not one of formality but of an all-out effort to make the place inviting. The host, attired in black tie, didn't even blanch at the three-days-in-the-woods-with-no-plumbing look of our group.

Perhaps we came the right night or just ordered the right dishes, or perhaps the chef was having a particularly buon giorno, but our meals were excellent from the first drop of suppa to the last swallow of capuccino.

We found the strength to pass up the appetizers, including mussels in lemon and garlic, antipasto, or calamari and scampi, but some of us knuckled under and had one of two soups offered for $1.50 a bowl.

Both are peasant soups, filling and good, the first made with spring onions and lentils that have not been cooked beyond recognition the second made with white beans and noodles.

Somewhere along the way, warm bread, white wine and green salads were delivered to us, keeping us happy and occupied during the long but worthwhile wait for our entrees.

The first complaint of the evening was launched over the veal al limone ($6.50) - not enough of this delicate, mouth-watering dish. As it turned out, this was the last complaint of the evening.

One of the children had linguine with clam sauce ($4.50), and risked my wrath by pointing out that "it's better than yours, Mom." I had a fine time with my linguine with shrimp and calamari in alight sauce. ($4.95).

The sleeper was my husband's order - tortelini al pesto ($4.75). It looks like spaghetti covered with creamed spinach, but pesto sauce is a beautiful combination of basil, olive oil, garlic, grated cheese and butter. The success of this dish, and in fact, of everything we had resulted from the very careful and deft use of herbs and seasoning that were obviously fresh.

Five different desserts are offered at Buon Giorno, which is operated by a family from Genoa, Italy. "I love to have the children come," the wife of the owner told us before we left. We were glad to hear that because we plan to go back.