5100 MacArthur Blvd. NW 363-0619 Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Dinner appetizers $1.75 to $6.95, sandwiches $1.95 to $4.75, pizza and entrees $7.95 to $12.95. Cards: American Express, Choice, MasterCard, Visa.

Listrani's needs publicity like Michael Jackson needs more fans -- even late on a Monday night, there's a good chance you'll have to wait in line outside before getting a table in this popular Italian cafe and delicatessen.

The good news is that Listrani's plans to expand in the near future. In the meantime -- and as is typical of this gracious restaurant -- management has thoughtfully placed benches outside to smooth any delay.

That Listrani's happens to be one of a handful of restaurants in this residential neighborhood only begins to explain its appeal. The cooking -- comparable if not superior to many a similarly priced downtown trattoria -- is consistently well-executed here, and more imaginative than it needs to be, given the lack of nearby competition. The setting -- a small, airy dining room with broad windows -- is whimsically decorated, and as suited to family outings as it is to dates. Service, too, gets high marks for efficiency, helpfulness and good humor.

The long menu cuts a swath through salads, deli sandwiches, pizza and pasta, and generally includes a short list of daily specials. And throughout that roster, the hits are many, from the ubiquitous house salad -- a big glass bowl laden with crisp greens and homemade croutons, accompanied by a choice of top-notch dressings -- to a more sophisticated main course of, say, veal garibaldi, which highlights quality, tender veal, blanketed with a glossy, pleasantly tart white wine sauce and garnished with mushrooms and artichoke hearts.

Above all, this is food with personality. A fine example of the kitchen's talent can be sampled with a bowl of herbaceous pasta puttanesca, fettuccine topped with a light and chunky wash of tomato sauce, and sparked with an assertive blend of fresh garlic, capers, olives and anchovies. The savory "colombo combo" pizza is its equal, a winning mix of fresh toppings -- diced onions, crunchy bell peppers, sausage, ham, pepperoni and mushrooms, among other things -- paired with a yeasty, perfectly baked crust.

Such vibrancy of flavor is balanced with subtlety in the likes of the soups -- one day a soothing combination of chicken and rice, another time a simple if heady blend of escarole and white beans, its broth hinting of garlic. Another appetizer, a plate of tender, fresh squid, plump shrimp and silky scallops bathed in a glistening wash of lemon and herbs, proved dazzlingly simple and light.

Shrimp also starred in a main course special, scampi alla pimiento. The big, fat and juicy shrimp -- stoked with a shower of cracked pepper and set atop a bed of olive oil-slickened fettuccine -- were further bolstered with fresh herbs and sun-dried tomatoes.

By ordering the deli sampler -- a trio of selections from Listrani's display case -- one can taste a range of salads without committing to an entire portion of any single item. Among the standard selections raised to distinction were a pasta salad flecked with walnuts and peppers, and a blend of white and wild rice mixed with bits of scallions, lentils and red pepper. Delicious ideas both, and different enough to assuage those jaded with pasta and rice salads.

The lone poultry dish, chicken eileen, is a show-stopper of sliced chicken breast, its skin glossy from butter and sprinkled with rosemary and diced red pepper.

Finally, the desserts here should not be overlooked, particularly the more straightforward ones, such as the homey pound cake, or better yet, a triangular slice of the locally made Almond Ingot cake, a confection rich with butter and eggs.

All this in a bustling square dining room that wouldn't look out of place in New York's Little Italy, save perhaps for the WASP-ish good looks of the serving staff. And as if the food weren't enough to focus on, there's a deli counter up front, those expansive front windows on two sides, and shelves of crackers and confections lining another wall.

One might wish for a glass of wine or a bottle of beer with his Italian food -- Listrani's has yet to renew its liquor license, which is expected to follow its expansion. Then again, I envy Listrani's neighbors such a fine little eatery. Every diner should be so lucky to have such a caring, consistent and moderately priced outpost on his corner.Tom Sietsema is on the staff of The Washington Post Food section.