1801 Rockville Pike



Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight daily.

Prices: Most dinner entrees $9 to $14.

Credit Cards: All major.

Paolo's is a big, slick, good-looking Italian watering hole, crowded and noisy even on weeknights, where the food is very good, the prices are moderate and the service is excellent.

The restaurant, situated where Marie Callender's used to be, sports a revamped dining room that combines marble and light wood in a curvy, modern design that's elegant yet functional. The kitchen is open, so you can watch the food preparation, and a wood-burning oven, in which pizza and grilled meats are cooked, occupies a prominent spot in the dining room. In addition to those items, the menu features Italian appetizers, pastas and desserts -- the latter two made in-house.

Dinner gets off to a good start with fresh bread sticks and a terrific caponata, a dip of eggplant, olives, olive oil, chickpeas and garlic. The fried calamari are excellent, very tender, enveloped in the thinnest egg batter and cooked in fresh-tasting oil. (Ask for the peppery marinara sauce on the side.) The minestrone is another winner, with a light broth and fresh, bright vegetables. Just as good is the ravioli appetizer, filled with a flavorful cheese mixture and topped with smoked salmon and a chive-butter sauce.

The mussels, clams and shrimp here have been outstanding -- impeccably fresh, tender, perfectly cooked. The mussels are available as a solo appetizer, or in combination with clams and pesto sauce.

There are more than a dozen pastas on the regular menu, plus a nightly special. They come in large portions and are nicely al dente, but some are weighed down with confusing combinations of flavors and sauces -- so simplicity should be your guide in choosing a pasta.

The penne Bolognese, for example, is a gem, with a chunky meat sauce enlivened by bits of good Italian sausage and a smidgen of pesto sauce. The same good Bolognese sauce also comes with the house-made ravioli. Angel hair with shrimp and scallops (it isn't really angel hair pasta) has a rich, good butter sauce, plus a bit of caviar (very nice) and a dollop of tomato puree (very odd). Fettuccine with smoked salmon is pleasant, but the pasta is heavy with cream and cheese. The duck sausage lasagna, sticky and heavy, sounds better than it tastes.

Grilled items include those good shrimp, served over linguine, with pesto and tomatoes -- probably a good choice. You won't go wrong with the herbed chicken, either, or the Italian sausage (although it could be juicier and spicier), or with the mixed grill, which combines the two.

The pizza is fine, and it comes with a variety of first-class toppings. But the crust is so thin that it practically dissolves under all that moisture, which proves that a wood-burning oven doesn't guarantee a good crust.

Desserts here are top-notch across the board. The apple tart has a wonderfully buttery short crust, the tiramisu is a velvety beauty, and the banana cream pie, topped with shaved white chocolate, is a very classy version of that old standard.