Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.; Saturday, 5 to 11:30 p.m.; closed Sunday.

Reservations: Only 44 seats, so reservations are recommended for Saturday night and large parties.

Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard, American Express.

Price range: From a $3.50 pasta platter with bread and butter at lunch, to a $9.50 veal dish with pasta, bread or salad on the dinner menu.

Special facilities: Highchairs, banquet facilities. Special to The Washington Post

We stumbled upon it one Saturday afternoon in May during our regular stroll around the neighborhood. It was nestled between a hardware store and a topless bar on upper Wisconsin Avenue, and inside the paint was still wet and pictures were propped against table legs.

But from the kitchen came the most remarkable aromas: the scent of rosemary, garlic, thyme, dill; the sweet smell of sauces simmering, of meat sizzling and the unmistakable steaming message that pasta was cooking.

We stood there in open-mouthed wonder when suddenly a handsome dark-eyed young woman came from the kitchen into the dining room. She told us that this was the opening day of Ristorante Floriana. She was Floriana herself, owner and chef.

The 24-year-old native of Milan had come over from Italy a few months earlier. She had discovered that beyond the high-priced Italian restaurants catering to the rich lawyers and lobbyists downtown there were few places where normal people could enjoy reasonably priced, authentic Italian food.

Having worked 13 years in her parents' country restaurant in the rustic hills outside Milan, Floriana staked all the money she could borrow on the proposition that Washingtonians would take to the dishes she had learned at her mother's knee.

What could we do but come back that very evening for dinner?

And it's a good thing we did. The place was utterly transformed. The paint was mostly dry; inexpensive but pleasant prints decorated the walls; and white and pink table cloths and fresh flowers adorned each of the 13 tables in Floriana's store-front restaurant.

Since that evening we have returned several times and always have been delighted with the quality of the kitchen and the fairness of the tariff. At lunch, you can order the same food and portion size as at dinner for 20 percent less than the dinner price.

On a recent visit, the meal was a success from the very beginning with fresh warm bread promptly delivered to the table before anyone had even looked at the menu. Moreover, it was a crusty loaf full of bite and vitality, not at all like the pressed cardboard that usually passes for bread.

My wife ordered tortellini in brodo ($2.25), a marvelously prepared and abundant first course bursting with homemade ricotta-filled tortellini swimming in a lightly spiced chicken broth. Uncle Fred and Anita shared a single order of mussel soup ($4.75) that was filled to overflowing with fresh sweet mussels swimming in a garlicky vegetable soup. My stracciatella alla roman ($2.25) was simply the best I'd ever had in the United States: a piquant egg drop soup one has to taste to believe.

While the kids wanted pizza, their spaghetti and lasagna ($5.95 and $5.50) kept them quiet and happy as the adults sampled other parts of the menu.

When ordering one of the 13 piatti del giorno (platters of the day), one gets a main course and a heaping bowl of spaghetti or salad -- a great bargain.

My wife's veal floriana ($9.50), a creamy cognac-flavored veal smothered in mushrooms, was the unquestioned killer dish of the evening, too delicious to avoid but so rich a single forkful was overwhelming.

I had the misfortune of ordering saltimbocca alla romana ($9.50), which came too salty and dry. When asked about it later, Floriana confessed she hated the dish and only kept it on the menu because so many Americans asked for it. In Italy the dish is prepared without cheese, the veal and thinly sliced ham being held together with toothpicks, while most Americans know it as a cheese-smeared and often soggy veal specialty. Floriana simply detests the American version and it shows.

However, my side dish of trenette al pesto, a basil and garlic flavored pasta dish, was perfectly satisfactory and orders of fresh broccoli and zucchini were magnificently fresh, crisply cooked and piping hot.

Anita bucked the trend by selecting one of the 18 pasta dishes, the gnocchi di patata ($5.95). This delicious plate of potato dumplings was pleasant and filling but just a bit too dense in the opinion of the table.

Uncle Fred's veal marsala ($9.50), however, was a perfectly constructed and generous order of delicate veal lightly covered in wine sauce and mushrooms.

In the end we all shared some cannolo ($1.50), cappuccino ($1.25) and a marvelous homemade rum cake ($1.75) before wandering off into the night to recover from our feast.

All is not bliss at Floriana's, however. The minestrone never has been good, the antipasto floriana is a disappointing collection of lunch meat and lettuce and the house salad isn't much better than airline food. And at times the two waiters are overwhelmed, especially on a busy Saturday night.

Yet the essence of the Italian culinary experience is to enjoy the untutored elements of the garden, dairy, butcher shop and the sea in a natural and free balance of taste, texture, color, shape and freshness. Despite a few slips here and there, Floriana's is a living embodiment of that sentiment.