The lights were low, the atmosphere intimate. A young man in a tuxedo scanned the menu, then looked shyly at his prom date, a brunette waif in burgundy satin who, standing sideways, was perhaps four inches wide.

"Wanna appetizer?" he ventured. There's mushrooms. Snails. Pizza.

Pizza.

So began a memorable meal at Carmello's & Little Portugal in Manassas for two seniors at Brentsville District High. Like many of their friends--whom with nonchalant glances the couple watched throughout the meal--they'd reserved a table at a place that has been city institution for 12 years. Osbourn Park had its prom the same Saturday night, and Carmello's was packed.

It's the kind of place where prom dates are taken and where marriage is proposed. Pregnancies announced. Birthdays and anniversaries celebrated. It's the kind of place you'll want to return to.

It offers cozy nooks and private crannies as well as tiny tables for two to sip wine, and tables large enough to accommodate all the relatives.

Meals begin with a trio of warm bread slices. Bread is served with whipped butter flavored with sun-dried tomato, a house specialty, says Alice Pires, who owns the restaurant with her sister and brother-in-law.

The six grilled, skewered shrimp appetizers ($8) arrived on a bed of fresh field greens with a lemon vinaigrette. The house salads contained tender chickpeas.

My dinner companion ordered one of the six daily specials: two grilled lamb chops in brown sauce with portobello mushrooms, roasted baby potatoes and a medley of broccoli, cauliflower and green beans. The dish was so good he was reluctant to share.

We also ordered Paelha Valenciana, a Portuguese style paella of saffron rice in a thin tomato broth, the rice heavy with bay scallops, jumbo shrimp, calamari, squid, chicken livers and spicy sausage, surrounded with mussels and clams and served with lobster tail and claw atop.

The portion was overwhelming, but that's not a complaint; it was $20. Other Washington-area restaurants charge more and serve two with a smaller portion. And this is true paella, not merely yellow rice strewed with chicken parts and shrimp.

At least four specials are made during the week and more on weekends, Pires says; the chefs like to compete with each other. Macario Gomez specializes in Italian cuisine such as Lasagne Bolognese with homemade pasta and layers of sausage and veal, and Fettuccine Gamberi Aglio Olio, pasta tossed with shrimp and asparagus and garlic and white wine. Portuguese-born Justino Alves creates his native dishes, such as Vieiras, lobster, shrimp scallops and artichoke hearts steamed in a wine-parlsey sauce with garlic.

Sirloin steak and roasted chicken are standard on the menu, but the petite filet mignon served in an espresso and port wine sauce is most decidedly inspired by the chefs' European training.

The two-tier dessert cart laden with choices--peanut butter fudge cake, banana cream pie, cannoli, fresh berries and creamy zabaglione sauce, and more--passed our table. Like other diners, we gaped; the presentation was beautiful.

We settled on chocolate mousse cake, with six thin layers, the bottom cake, the other five mousse: white, dark, bittersweet and milk chocolate, garnished with white chocolate shavings. It melted in the mouth.

Request the restaurant wine list to peruse a binder of carefully displayed wine labels. "We taste most of our wines," says Pires, and the staff is trained to recommend wines that pair well with the food served.

The list includes a '94 Shiraz from Australia ($19 a bottle) as well as many selections from Italy, Portugal and France. Virginia's Prince Michel Vineyards' award-winning '94 Chardonnay ($20) is in stock. And for the truly memorable occasion, there's champagne: Dom Perignon at $130 a bottle or Moet and Chandon at $55. If that's more than you care to pay, house wines are $4.25 a glass.

We noticed that many diners seemed to know the staff, and vice versa. Carmello's has a strong following; if you go weekends without reservations, you're in for a long wait. Save time; view the menu at http://www.carmellos.com.

Got a Prince William restaurant you'd like to spread the word about? Send e-mail to kovachs@erols.com, or mail to: 9254 Center St., Manassas Va., 20110

Carmello's & Little Portugal

* Address: 9108 Center St., Manassas, 703-368-5522.

* Hours: Open Monday to Friday for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday through Saturday 5-10 p.m. and Sunday 4-9 p.m.

* Credit cards: Accepts all major credit cards.

* Prices: $10-$20 for entrees, with many about $15. Less comprehensive menu is cheaper at lunch. Our dinner for two (without wine) came to $71.11 with tip.

* Kids menu: No, but pizza and spaghetti sides are $3-$6.

* Low fat selections: Many.

* Health conscious: Many choices.

* Atmosphere: Intimate, upscale.

* Downside: None.