Ristorante Primavera

3700 Massachusetts Ave. NW


Hours: Lunch, noon to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner, 6 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 6 to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Sunday brunch, noon to 2:30 p.m.

Prices: Lunch appetizers $1.95 to $4.95, entrees $5.95 to $8.95. Dinner appetizers $4 to $5.95, entrees $7.50 to $12.95.

Cards: American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa.

The Italian restaurant invasion continues, and La Fleur is the latest piece of real estate to capitulate to the forces of pasta and zuppa inglese. Yet while Washingtonians might miss the Gallic flavor (but probably not the prices) of its French predecessor, the reincarnation, Ristorante Primavera, features some good dining at reasonable prices in handsome environs.

Fortunately, the best part of the previous establishment -- the terrace seating off the main dining room -- remains intact. Not to overlook the rest of the place, which includes several classy dining areas and a cozy bar, but it would be hard to beat Primavera's patio for romance.

This is about as close as one gets to dining al fresco under a roof. The garden-like setting comes wrapped in brick walls, brick floors and a small jungle's worth of potted greenery. Light filters in through stained glass. In the center of the court, a small lighted fountain bubbles softly, producing a sound as sweet as any music. And set on pink tablecloths are several pretty, fresh flowers, and translucent globes containing candles, their soft, flickering flames glowing to everyone's advantage.

Jolting the mood are the waiters, who work the dining room as if it were a pizza joint. "You guys ready to order?" a waiter blurted one night. When the maitre d' appeared at our table to open a bottle of wine, he uncorked it between his legs -- a sight I haven't encountered since my last dorm party.

Despite occasional forgetfulness (sometimes you get bread with a meal, sometimes you don't), this is a likable crew that generally tends well to your needs and knows the menu and its strong points. The dishes are practically tossed on the tables, but the taste and appearance don't seem to suffer. And in fairness, the service has improved with each of my visits.

The appetizer selections sound familiar, although they are generally a cut above the usual Italian starters. What's described on the menu simply as "assorted marinated seafood" turns out to be a fresh melange of mostly tender squid and a few shrimp and scallops, glossed with olive oil and brightened with a squeeze of lemon. (In contrast, the fried squid isn't nearly as delicious -- the breading was bland, the squid chewy.) Among the soups is that classic Italian bowl known as pasta fagioli, a robust blend of firm, flavorful haricot beans and al dente bites of pasta.

The antipasto is a prettily arranged plate but is nothing so special as to warrant veering from, say, the pastas, which can be ordered as both appetizers and entrees. Solid and homey rather than refined, my favorites have included the soothing pasta primavera -- spinach fettuccine bathed in a rich cream sauce, flecked with bites of pancetta -- and the half-moon pasta filled with fresh, pleasantly grassy-tasting spinach, coated in a buttery rich white sauce and dusted with parmesan cheese.

The cooking has improved noticeably since the opening weeks, when dishes such as the pollo all'oregano were drowned in their sauces, and the bread basket included cellophane-wrapped bread sticks. At its best, Primavera is a lightly breaded, pink-centered thick veal chop, faintly smoky from its grilling, and flavorful from its pan juices, flanked by dollops of angelhair pasta. Or fork-tender saltimbocca alla romana, the thin veal scallops sheathed with delicate slices of ham, and accompanied by a lovely side order of sauteed spinach.

Here, fish and seafood are treated with respect and care: Sea bass is presented as moist and flavorful fillets, sparked with capers and onions and blanketed with a light tomato sauce. Yet another winner, zuppa de pesce all'antonio, is a herby blend of succulent, plump scallops, mussels and such, in a heady cover of tomato sauce.

As you're shown to a seat on the terrace, you pass the dessert cart, a tempting array said to be made by a Sicilian pastry chef. Among the best of those confections have been the moist, delicately sweet liqueur-laced cakes -- save room for a slice, along with a cup of fine, dark coffee.

For the most part, Primavera is easy to like. Where else are you apt to remember the friendliness of the woman who checks your coat, and the man who parks your car, as much as the food?

At Primavera, the setting says ristorante, but the mood is pure trattoria.

Tom Sietsema is on the staff of The Washington Post Food section.