It's a pleasure eating at Candelora's, even in the basement. I would even venture to say that Candelora's -- despite being as inconveniently and weirdly located as any restaurant in Loudoun -- has the best Italian fare in the county. Witness the jammed parking lot and hour wait for a table on two recent weekend nights. This may be no news to local foodies, but to a relative newcomer who's a hound for a decent plate of pasta, it was a pleasant revelation.

On my first visit, I started with the stunning portobellas and greens, a large pan-seared shroom floating in a bowl with some wilted greens in a savory garlic- and basil-flavored broth. My companions tried calamari marinara, brie al forno and the signature artichoke candelora, priced between $4.95 and 7.95. The artichoke and calamari starters were unremarkable, but the delectable brie -- baked in a pastry shell and drizzled with a sweet caramelized demi sauce and roasted red peppers -- is a special worth looking for.

I may be sticking with specials at Candelora's (and yes, I'll definitely be back!). My second visit featured an excellent steak Diane special, a tender filet in a light cream sauce with portobellas, capers and peppers, served with garlicky new potatoes and wilted greens. I tucked away every last morsel. My wife scored big with the superb scallops Bellavista special ($17.95) -- scallops, tomatoes and asparagus tips sauteed with garlic and basil and served over risotto.

I also tried the veal saltimbocca ($16.95), which was fine, the cream sauce a tad heavy but saved by a nice blend of prosciutto, sage and garlic served on a bed of ziti and wilted greens. I've never attempted the dish, but our friend, an accomplished chef, assured me that the scallops alla vodka, a special, was indeed a very good version of a dish that's easy to screw up. Another special, a Calabrian pork chop, was similarly well executed for those who are partial to fennel. The classic sausage and ziti al forno -- sauteed sweet fennel sausage and ziti in marinara sauce baked with mozzarella -- is a relative steal at $9.95. The roasted garlic and flavored olive oils made a nice snack starter, but I wished the bread had been a little heavier, the crust a bit chewier.

The slim wine list is well selected. We enjoyed both the Trefethen cabernet sauvignon ($25) and the Villa Porto red ($22) but not the Chianti sold by the glass. Service, beginning with owner Frederick Petrello's solicitous greeting at the door, was perfect. No uniformed, hovering waiters, no interminable waits. Jason, our engaging waiter, impressed us with his encyclopedic knowledge and enthusiastic recitation of the contents and preparation of every single menu item. More important, he wasn't afraid to steer us away from a couple of dishes he didn't care for, and his description of the veal as having a "nice depth" sold me. Dinner for two, including appetizers, dessert, coffee, a bottle of wine and tip, ran about $110. That's a little steep out this way, but the portions are healthy; skipping the appetizers and dessert won't leave you hungry.

So there you have it: good service and a varied and well-executed menu with fresh ingredients and a nice hand for seasonings. Candelora's, a brick split-level in Lovettsville, may not look like much from the outside -- and it looks like even less downstairs, where the decor is linoleum-topped tables and vinyl stacking banquet chairs. But what comes out of the kitchen is inspired. That's why I was thrilled to hear that Petrello has bought the Purcellville Inn, a lovely old Colonial stone house on old Route 7, where the food and the ambience will be a closer match.


Address: 2 S. Church St., Lovettsville, 540-822-5705

Hours: Open for dinner only, 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 4 to 9 p.m. Sundays.

Credit cards: Accepts MasterCard and Visa, as well as personal checks.

Prices: Appetizers, $5.95 to $7.95; entrees, $9.95 to $16.95. Daily specials, including soup, salad, appetizers and three to four entrees.

Miscellaneous: Reservations accepted only for parties of six or more. Nonsmoking dining room upstairs with about 40 seats. Publike dining room downstairs with about 25 seats, smoking permitted. Cafe bar upstairs for nonsmokers. Takeout and catering for all occasions.

CAPTION: Frederick Petrello, above left, and Paul Petrello, of Candelora's in Lovettsville, sit in the main dining room. The restaurant may not look like much from the outside, but the varied and well-executed Italian meals served up by a friendly, informative staff will have you coming back for more. The menu includes a four-cheese lasagna, left, served with baked swordfish and artichoke hearts topped with bernaise sauce.