Unless you enjoy standing in a crowded lobby waiting for a table for dinner, plan to arrive at the Pines of Rome before 7 p.m.
After that, this place is packed, even on weeknights. Why the popularity? It certainly isn't the environment, which is unrelievedly noisy, almost defiantly drab, and growing a little dingier all the time. And it isn't unusual dishes. There's nothing on this menu that you won't find in scores of other Italian restaurants.
No, the secret of success here is that the standard items -- pastas, veal, seafood, and so on -- are prepared very well, and that the prices have remained extraordinarily low. The service is very good, too. Although the waiters are too rushed for charm and chitchat, they're quick, efficient and accommodating.
For appetizers, the fried zucchini is a consistent winner: thin-sliced, dipped in delicate batter and lightly fried in fresh oil. (Don't forget to squeeze on a bit of lemon for zip.)
The white beans, nicely firm and laced with plenty of garlic and fresh parsley, are always a good beginning, as are the sweet red peppers and anchovies. To gild the lily, you can order a small white pizza to munch with appetizers. It has an excellent chewy-crisp base, good cheese (go for the fontina) and the requisite garlic and oregano. The only appetizer letdown lately has been the fried peppers, which we found to be overdone and mushy.
Lasagna has become so ubiquitous in recent years -- next to broccoli, it must be the No. 1 food in institutional cafeterias -- and awful in so many places, it's worth having some at the Pines of Rome just to set the record straight.
Prepared with skill and care, as it is here, this can be a dynamite dish. Notice the separation of flavors and textures, the firmness of the pasta, the creaminess and taste of the cheese, the chunkiness of the ground meat, the fresh-tasting quality of the tomato sauce.
The veal here is remarkably good -- succulent, flavorful, fine-textured and not overpounded -- and remarkably low-priced. To best taste the meat, have it with lemon and butter, or for a bit more verve, with the robust, slightly sweet marsala wine sauce.
Chicken cacciatore is a bit disappointing -- a nice, reasonably succulent half-bird, but in a plain Jane sauce that seems to be nothing more than tomatoes. The sauce with the sausage, peppers and spaghetti, on the other hand, is a gem, far more complex in flavor, with sweet red and green peppers. And the sausage itself is a delight, lean, nicely peppery and fragrant with fennel.
Shrimp are plump and fresh tasting, but beware the variety with garlic and butter, which practically floats in butter. Even better are the mussels: big, fresh and briney. Have a dozen in a garlicky broth as a shared appetizer, or with linguine as an entree.
For dessert there's an excellent cannoli, it's filling properly cheesy and not oversweetened, and very good tartufo ice cream balls, a kind of Italian Eskimo pie.