Past the giant strip malls and chain restaurants that line Sudley Road and Route 28 in ever-spreading Manassas, in the middle of Old Town, sits one of the region's culinary gems: Carmello's & Little Portugal.

This is one of the few restaurants in the area offering Portuguese food, and it's worth the trip to Manassas.

Portugal shares the Iberian Peninsula with Spain, and although the two countries' cuisines use similar raw ingredients -- seafood prime among them -- Portuguese cooking has a flair uniquely its own. It's not particularly spicy, though there is great depth of flavor, and the tastes aren't really what I would call exotic, just interesting and unusual.

Take clams. A favorite Portuguese dish pairs the mollusks with pork, often cooked in a special pot called a cataplana that looks something like two small woks hinged together and clamped shut.

At Carmello's & Little Portugal, the appetizer version of this dish is called ameijoas a{grv} Portugue^sa (Portuguese clams). The pork is actually chouric{cedil}o, spicy Portuguese sausage. Thick slices of the sausage are cooked with clams in a white wine sauce with tomatoes and onions. The result is a hearty stew -- redolent of peppers and spices -- large enough for a main course.

So, too, is the restaurant's spitada de camara~o (skewered shrimp), six large shrimp grilled to perfection, gently napped with a lemon vinaigrette and served atop mixed greens.

But let me back up a bit and explain the restaurant's name and how these culinary rarities ended up in downtown Manassas.

Carmello's opened in Manassas in 1987, specializing in northern Italian. Five years later, Portuguese sisters Alice Pires and Maria Barros bought Carmello's and added Little Portugal to the name and traditional Portuguese dishes to the menu.

At first, Pires said, diners were reluctant to try the new offerings, but now the Portuguese fare makes up about 40 percent of the sales.

About half of the main dishes are Portuguese (not counting the Italian-only pastas), with a couple of appetizers. The Italian dishes are many and familiar -- fried calamari, crab-stuffed mushrooms, penne primavera -- but the Portuguese offerings are the stars.

Consider frango a{grv} marinheiro, a dish centered on the often-bland boneless chicken breast. Here the chicken is moist and succulent, topped with shrimp and bits of bacon in a garlic-tomato-herb sauce. Frango grelhado a{grv} porto also features chicken breast, this time grilled and presented with a port wine sauce with wild mushrooms and pine nuts.

Try the Portuguese-style bife a{grv} pimenta, two petite filet mignon served with a rich and earthy green peppercorn-port sauce. There is also a version of surf and turf, filet and lobster tail, each served with Portuguese sauces.

The daily specials from chef Jose Vigil are more likely to be Italian but haven't proved consistently to be as successful as the sisters' native fare.

A recent preparation of fettuccine, seafood and chicken included impeccably cooked shrimp and scallops and tender slivers of chicken, but the sauce lacked flavor. The same evening, a chicken breast stuffed with pork sausage, dried cranberries and dried cherries and served with porcini mushrooms was mouthwateringly good, though it seemed to lack a cultural identity.

All main dishes are served with an excellent house salad, a mixture of spring greens in a light vinaigrette that is far superior to iceberg lettuce.

The bread basket includes an excellent rye, crusty sourdough and a raisin-nut bread. They are accompanied by a roasted red pepper butter spread and bottles of good olive oil.

Desserts include an assortment of overly rich, he-man-size portions of cheesecakes and various tarts and pies. Skip those -- none are made in the restaurant -- and choose the fresh berries served with excellent homemade zabaglione.

The restaurant is spread among three rooms, the center of which houses a large bar and a few tables where smoking is permitted. The other rooms, decorated with murals and historical prints of Venice, offer nooks and crannies for more intimate dining.

Chefs Jose Vigil, left, and Wilmer Marquez specialize in traditional Portuguese favorites, including paelha Valenciana, held by Vigil, and tornedo con queijo, medallions of tenderloin served with cheese.