Porto Italiano 7130 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda 654-6666

Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner, 5 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 6 to 11 p.m. Saturday. Prices: Dinner entrees $8 to $13. Credit cards: American Express, Choice, MasterCard, Visa.

Porto Italiano is probably going to be a nifty Italian restaurant one of these days. Much of the food is already excellent, and the staff is obviously conscientious and well-meaning.

It's a pretty place, too, the mirrored dining room flanked by striped banquettes and dressed up with white linens and fresh carnations. And, although it doesn't qualify as a cheap restaurant, the prices aren't exorbitant.

But this is still a very new place and very much in the throes of the "starter syndrome," an affliction that leads to unpredictable quality control in the kitchen and sometimes uncoordinated service. Still, there's obvious skill here. If things settle down, Porto Italiano should add depth to the lineup of good restaurants in downtown Bethesda.

The best bet for an appetizer is to share an order of pasta. The spaghetti alla matriciana is a gem, with a smooth, gentle, fresh-tasting tomato sauce containing generous chunks of bacon and ham. Just as impressive is the homemade ravioli, nicely chewy with a fluffy ricotta filling, and in a lovely tomato-cream sauce that doesn't overwhelm the pasta. However, the tortellini alla panna suffers from too much of a too thick, nutmeg-dosed cream sauce.

The soups have been very good, including a chunky, home-style minestrone and a delicate stracciatella with plenty of fluffy egg and spinach.

We had less luck with the regular appetizers. The mussels were well past their peak of freshness, although they were served in a marvelous tomato sauce, fruity and peppery, with garlic, wine and olive oil. Fried mozzarella was heavy, with a thick, oily batter. Excessive oiliness afflicted the fried calamari appetizer, too.

The salads that come with the entrees are simple but good, with fresh romaine and a plain, nicely garlic-tinged oil-vinegar dressing.

Among the entrees, both veal dishes we tried were excellent. Veal savoirda uses fine-textured, tender medallions in a meaty sauce, with garlic, white wine, butter, scallions and mushrooms. Even better, the veal chop (a special) was an exceptional piece of meat, an inch-thick double rib, cooked rare and juicy, in a restrained marsala sauce that nicely plays up the veal's flavor.

Porto Italiano's skill with tomato sauces shows up in another top-notch special, calamari with linguine, a huge platter of fresh, sweet calamari in a lovely marinara sauce served over a bed of properly chewy pasta.

The generously portioned, beautifully presented zuppa di pesci comes with clams, shrimp, calamari, mussels and fish, in a broth infused with the shellfish juices, garlic and pepper. But this dish is a repeat of the mussel appetizer: great sauce, elderly shellfish.

Pollo Porto Italiano, a chicken breast stuffed with ham and artichokes, is probably a fine dish under normal circumstances, but in the one we tried the chicken had been grossly undercooked, an isolated but significant quality control slipup. Another loser was the broiled trout, swimming in a puddle of butter and with a mealy-textured stuffing.