The adage warning us not to judge a book by its cover can apply to restaurants as well: Don't appraise an eatery by its facade.

Except for the noise, Mamma Ilardo's, on the third level of The Shops at National Place, doesn't have the ambiance of the fast-food restaurants typically found in shopping malls. In fact, it rather resembles the fashionably loud and congested dining spots frequented by the upwardly mobile in New York. The furnishings are few but well chosen: pastel-colored tile tables, comfortable black chairs and splashes of greenery against a backdrop of simple '50s-style design give the place a decidely light and energetic feel. Even the lunch menu -- a square of see-through plastic embellished with the same patterns as the walls -- shows imagination.

If only the kitchen shared the dining room's flair.

Warning signals flash with the arrival of the appetizers. The bland minestrone, with the addition of a fistful of beans, tasted like a poorly doctored version of the canned variety. And an order of broccoli with tinny mushrooms and tasteless cheese lost its flavor to overcooking, the broccoli having been cooked almost to mush. Save any pre-meal noshing for the basket of french bread, which comes gratis.

At lunch, everyone seems to be eating pizza at Mamma Ilardo's. Part of that may be explained by the self-service all-you-can-eat pizza bar ($4.50), where diners not only have a choice between thin and deep-dish varieties, but are able to refill their plates as desired. (The latter is especially appreciated during the lunch rush.) The pizza tends to be less than hot and the cheese a bit skimpy, although the crust is chewy and flavorful. Toppings include the usual pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms and the like. In all, it is decent, not great, eating. Mamma's Original Pizza, a thin-crusted white pizza spread with shavings of sweet sausage and onion, is a better choice, aromatic with garlic and anchovies.

Pasta orders, if not memorable, are on the generous side. Lasagna is a hefty portion of noodles, finely ground beef, sweet tomato sauce and ricotta, layered beneath a mantle of mozzarella cheese. A recurrent problem is the kitchen's forgetting to properly drain the pasta, so that a pool of water rests in the dish; not only does this make for poor presentation, it tends to dilute the sauces.

Veal dishes feature thin and spongy pieces of meat. With the Veal Ilardo, I received three such unpleasant cuts, filled with the same forgettable mushrooms, overcooked broccoli and satisfactory tomatoes encountered among previous main courses.

Rounding out the menu are such standards as pasta salad, eggplant and chicken parmigiana, plus a selection of unobjectionable sandwiches: an Italian hero, steak and cheese, sausage with peppers, and meatball.

The disappointment can begin well before you ever see any food, however, for service has been consistently inconsistent. At times it is rushed but expedient. Other times it's just plain awful: no greeting, clumsy handling of orders, or having to prod for basic menu information left me feeling as though I was a guinea pig in a classroom setting for first-time waiters.

Given its hip setting, you expect more from Mamma Ilardo's. My wish would be for more attention to the dishes and service than to the design. In all, this restaurant does little to boost the image of mass eating in mass space.