Atmosphere: Neighborly.

Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to midnight.

Price range: Dinners, $4.75 to $6.50; sandwiches and pizzas, $2.50 to $10.45.

Reservations: Required only for large parties.

Credit cards: None; personal checks accepted with proper ID.

Special facilities: Customer parking lot; accessible to patrons in wheelchairs; highchairs and booster seats available.

"It's just a neighborhood restaurant," a Silver Spring resident warned us. We were in his neck of Silver Spring, running an errand that was supposed to take half an hour. Two hours later, our dinner hour was long gone and we were ravenous. We asked where we could grab a quick, inexpensive bite to eat.

"I've never been there but I hear the Pasta Mill's not bad," our source said.

The Pasta Mill, a cheerful, friendly spaghetti house a few blocks from a main traffic artery (Rte. 29) amid country-style residences, was indeed not bad. In fact, when we factored in the pleasant service, the freshness of the food and the extraordinarily reasonable prices, we had to upgrade that rating to very good, if not excellent.

The Pasta Mill doesn't have any particular ambiance. It's clean, neat and modern, with ersatz butcher-block tables and bright red leather seats. It doesn't serve fancy food, but, rather, simple, hearty Italian-style meals with an emphasis on quantity and a rich, tomato/oregano sauce that covers everything from spaghetti to eggplant paremesan.

What lifts Pasta Mill above the ordinary, however, is the fact that the $4.75 tab for spaghetti or the $6.50 tab for cannelloni Florentine includes an ample, fresh and very gracious salad bar as well as unlimited helpings from the crock of hot soup. Unlike the soup accompanying most salad bars, however, this one is not a thin gruel that splashes around in your bowl but, the night we were there, a thick, rich cream of broccoli. Our only complaint was that we ate too much of it and got too full.

The salad bar, which can be ordered as a main course for $3.55 (including soup and bread), also fell into that category. In a tiny room of its own, the salad bar featured both greens and appropriate toppings and gorgeous fresh fruits. Among the fresh fruits offered the night we were there were pineapple rings, melon chunks, strawberries and grapes. Among the unusual toppings for lettuce or spinach were sauerkraut, broccoli and yellow summer squash, plus the usual but squeaky-fresh black olives, sliced onions and mushrooms.

As we were the only customers in the restaurant at 9:15 on a Monday night, we wondered how the Pasta Mill could maintain such a fresh, well-stocked salad bar. We thought we were onto a find that nobody else knew about. Our waitress quickly disabused us of that idea.

"Your timing's good tonight," she said. "People were lined up out the door earlier."

Since we asked our waitress for quick service, she brought out main courses right after our salads. Although all our dishes -- spaghetti and meatballs ($5.50), eggplant parmesan with spaghetti ($5.50) and manicotti ($6.10) -- were covered with the same basic tomato sauce, it was a hearty, rich sauce that tasted homemade and strongly of herbs.

Considering the speed with which our dishes were prepared and the heavy volume of business the restaurant does, the main courses must be somewhat pre-assembled. Our waitress acknowledged that the spaghetti was already cooked and waiting.

Nonetheless, all the dishes were served piping hot and were quite credible. The eggplant parmesan, in particular, was an excellent version of that dish. The eggplant had been sliced thin, breaded, fried to a crisp and then layered with cheese and baked. The eggplant/cheese combination was placed on a bed of spaghetti and doused with a generous serving of the ubiquitous sauce.

The meatballs that accompanied the spaghetti and sauce on my husband's dish were a blend of meats that had been pleasantly seasoned with herbs. My son's manicotti had a creamy and, again, herb-seasoned filling of ricotta, mozzarella and Romano cheeses.

For dessert, Pasta Mill offers Mrs. Smith's pies (85 cents a slice), cheesecake ($1.25) and pudding (50 cents). We tried one vanilla pudding and found it creamy but nothing special.

The tab for three of us came to $19.64, including tax.