Fio's is a gift.

It's a dandy little Italian-American restaurant with equal consideration for your palate and your pocketbook. Families with budgets mangled by inflation can get some relief at Fio's where $3 will but a plateful of bubbling lasagna or $5 will get you a saucy veal dish or a T-bone steak.

Fio's is stashed away in the oodner, a once-fashionable hotel on 16th Street that is making a comeback as an apartment house. You won't be bowled over by Fio's appearance. Decorative touches run to a few citronella candles on plastic-topped tables covered with maroon vinyl cloths.

But never mind, because the utilitarian decor keeps the overhead down and the savings are passed along to the customers. Fio also buys meat, fish and vegetables that are in season, when they are lower in cost. If he can get a deal on, say, duck or fresh flounder, that item will appear that night as a special.

Six of us, including our 10- and 12-year old daughters and two newly engaged friends, went to Fio's for a pre-nuptial celebration. By 7 p.m. the dining room was packed.

Our waitress, a competent lady who could describe every dish in the place down to the last teaspoon of salt, hustled sodas and wine out to us. She gave us a chance to read the menu with its wide array of pasta, pizza, veal and seafood.

Then she rattled off a startling list of the day's specials, culled from Fio's bargaining in the marketplace. They included things like soft crab, fresh flounder and croaker, turkey leg, tripe, veal Florentine and sauteed crab meat. Nothing cost more than $5.50.

Sensing that we had no idea what to order, the waitress suggested we share an antipasto, $4.50, while thinking things over. Soon she came bearing a basket of wonderful Italian bread that was crusty and slightly chewy and a big platter of cheeses, cold cuts, anchovies, olives and so on.

Still no closer to our decisions, the waitress recommended that since we were newcomers to Fio's, we should order at least one meat and one fish platter to give us a good sampling of Fio's culinary virtuosity.

My husband had the fish platter for a measly $5. Actually, there was no fish included at all, but a savory collection of mussels, clams, king crab, shrimp and squid heaped on a pile of pasta.

Our friend also heeded the waitress's suggestion and had the meat platter, $5, an inspired group of treats including chicken cacciatore, spicy Italian sausage, eggplant parmigiana, spaghetti and braciola (in which a thin slice of beef is rolled around a ground beef stuffing along with cheese and salami).

His bride-to-be had only kind words for the saltimbocca, $4, a veal dish with prosciutto ham, mozzarella cheese, anchovies and tomato sauce.

Our younger daughter decided to sit out this Italian orgy and had a passable T-bone steak and broccoli, which, in the Fio's tradition, was fresh. Her sister satisfied her pasta penchant by having canneloni, noodles stuffed with a meat filling and doused with a zesty tomato sauce, at $3.

I suspected that choosing soft crabs, $5.50, in this Italian paradise might be a dopey move, but did it anyway. Fio's didn't let me down. The crabs were incredible, big and meaty and deep-fried to a puffy golden color.

The kids did have one disappointment when they learned that the cannoli, their all-time favorite pastry, was not available, but they managed to bear up under this blow when a cup of creamy tortoni ice cream was delivered to each of them.

The rest of us nodded over coffee while waiting for our bill. Speed is not Fio's long suit during a busy dinner hour because the kitchen spends more timne than most on food preparation and because the staff is small.

But somehow the slow pace didn't bother us, nor were we unhappy to learn that our family's share of the tab, including tip, was $34.60.