800 Hungerford Dr., Rockville 251-5816 Hours: 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 1:30 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. Prices: Most items $4 to $7. Credit Cards: MasterCard, Visa.

If you've been waiting for a superior pizza place without the upscale prices, here it is. Pasta-Pizza HQ is a restaurant of happy surprises from start to finish.

The first surprise occurs at the entrance. Outside, the place has a dark and dumpy look. Inside, presto: It reveals itself as an uncommonly handsome little dining room, done up in light woods and thick carpeting.

But the nicest surprise is the food. Most of what's on this simple, short menu -- pizza, salads, several pastas, sandwiches -- is head-and-shoulders above the crowd, and there's a certain flair and attention to detail here you'd expect to find only in a more elaborate (and expensive) restaurant. When's the last time you saw a pizza place with fresh flowers on the tables?

It's also a restaurant of imagination. For example, the glossy black plates are dead ringers for Japanese lacquer ware -- until you pick them up and realize they're throwaway plastic. The pasta preparation system is intelligently innovative, too, using individual woks for preparation and serving.

And this is a restaurant of quality ingredients. We spotted boxes of De Cecco pastas in the kitchen (to our minds, among the best of the imported brands). The bread served with the pastas and used for the subs is just as impressive: crusty, freshly baked French mini-baguettes brushed with olive oil.

Among the salads, the contadina is a beauty, with lots of good tuna and white beans. At $1.95 it's a bargain, too. There's also a decent pasta salad, with fusilli, green peppers and a pleasant oil-herb dressing, and a pretty green salad with an interesting, mayonnaise-based tonnato dressing flavored with tuna, capers and lemon juice.

You won't go wrong with any of the subs. Perhaps the most lovable is the "salsicciotto," a combination of excellent Italian sausage -- juicy, garlicky, not greasy -- with chunks of onion and sweet red and green pepper. But be sure to order it with the tomato sauce on the side so you can enjoy the texture of that fine bread.

Another sub winner is the "rare brie'd," thinly shaved rare roast beef served with horseradish, a cup of the tonnato dressing, a hefty slice of warm brie and a small portion of the contadina salad. At $3.95, this is one of the best sandwich buys around.

But the biggest reason to visit this place is the pizza. The tomato and mozzarella are top quality, and more important, this pizza has one of the best crusts we've found in a long time, a generously puffy gem, crisp and chewy in all the right places.

The standout among the pastas is the remarkably light, delicate pesto sauce, fragrant with fresh basil and garlic. This pesto would be creditable even in an upscale Italian restaurant. The bolognese sauce, on the other hand, is nicely meaty and clingy but too timidly seasoned, and the fusilli with broccoli was so bland it needed even salt and pepper.

Dessert? Head for the tartufo ice cream balls.