Avanti II

2619 Connecticut Ave. NW

332-5400

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day. Dinner 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.

Prices: Lunch appetizers $3 to $4, entrees $5.95 to $8.95; dinner appetizers $3.50 to $6.95, entrees $9.50 to $16.95.

Cards: All major credit cards.

Nonsmoking area in dining room.

It's not as flashy as some of the chic, new Italian restaurants downtown. But Avanti II, which opened five months ago on Connecticut Avenue across from the Woodley Park-Zoo Metro station, offers hearty traditional fare in gracious surroundings at fancy, night-out prices.

At the former site of the Captain Days seafood restaurant, it's not the kind of place where red sauce and thick slices of mozzarella abound. Its strength is in its entrees: generous servings of well-prepared meat or fish accompanied by brightly colored vegetables and pan-roasted potatoes. Dishes are often boldly seasoned, sometimes with lots of garlic and other times with a bit of red pepper or fresh herbs.

We were impressed, for example, by Avanti II's thick-cut pork chops, which were cooked to juicy, just-done perfection, and by a simple, rosemary-infused dish of sauteed chicken.

With the entire menu a la carte, Avanti II is also the kind of place where it's easy to run up a big bill. Meat and seafood entrees are priced in the $12 to $17 range, and appetizers, soups and salads hover around $5. The wine list, ample and consisting almost entirely of Italian wines, starts at $14, but most selections are more than $20.

Bargain hunters who opt for the house wine, red or white at $12 a carafe, will find it drinkable but nothing more. Thus, dinner for four with an appetizer can easily approach $30 a head -- and that's without dessert, coffee or a tip.

Some main courses, however, are memorable, including a daily special featuring a generous portion of broiled salmon served with a butter and herb sauce ($16.95). The pork chops, a bargain at $11.95 here, are described on the menu as coming with a vinegar and pepper sauce, which we couldn't detect. But no matter. They were tender and flavorful.

Veal Sorrentino ($15.95) consisted of pummeled veal slices layered with prosciutto ham and fontina cheese and then fried in batter. The veal seemed to get lost -- but then it usually does in this dish, making us wonder why so many people bother to serve it.

Among the appetizers, we liked a daily special of clam chowder ($3.50), made without cream or tomatoes but with plenty of clam and potato. A cold appetizer of hearts of palm ($3.95) came attractively accented with roasted red pepper and a pleasant vinaigrette.

On the other hand, a Caesar salad ($4) seemed flat and uninspired; perhaps a stronger dose of lemon juice or anchovies would have helped. And a hot antipasto platter for two ($11.50) was ample enough to be shared by three or four, but featured tired and generally overcooked foods that failed to excite the palate, including shrimp, fried squid, stuffed mushroom caps, baby clams topped with bits of bacon and pasty breadcrumbs, artichoke hearts, olives and two big agnolottis (cheese-filled pastas).

Pastas at Avanti II run from $9.50 to $13.95. The portions are large and competently prepared, but the ones we tried were not worth a detour. Agnolotti Macchiati ($10.50) included tiny crescent-shaped stuffed pasta awash in a tomato and cream sauce. A platter of spaghetti with olive oil and garlic was $9.50.

A dessert cart was loaded with pastries including such standards as cheesecake and carrot cake. The cannoli were satisfying one night and stale tasting another. The cream filling was also grainy.

One summer reason to go to Avanti II is its sidewalk cafe. Despite its location just 20 feet off busy Connecticut Avenue, the breezy outdoor setting makes up for the street noise, and the stream of passersby is a nice diversion. There's seating for about six parties at vinyl-covered tables under an unpretentious blue awning.

Inside, there is a pleasant bar with small tables; the main dining room is farther back, a cool, dark place with a long mirrored wall, thick carpeting, Italian paintings and a glass chandelier.

Waiters could be attentive, but often they were not. Water glasses were filled constantly, yet one waiter stared into the distance while we tried to level a rocking table. Another gave us the wrong price for a daily special and disappeared for long periods. Both waiters practically insisted we order garlic bread, but it took so long to appear that we figured they'd forgotten all about it.