When thoughts wander toward Italian food, they conjure up pasta, hearty and robust, and a run of cheeses -- Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, maybe even Asiago. Sauces can be an afterthought, but at GG Cafe in Leesburg, they are important players.

This restaurant was recommended, somewhat reluctantly, by a reader because she likes the place so much that she and her husband have become Friday night regulars. But she was ambivalent about how much she wanted the rest of the world to know.

The secret is out, if the size of the Saturday night crowd is any indication. The place has a couple of rooms, perhaps 16 tables and a lively crowd, many of them regulars, according to the management.

This is a comfortable, spare, informal restaurant filled with warm tones, ambient lighting and attractive paintings of restaurant entrances, most of them European by their feel. The paintings generally place you outside, looking through an open front door. The combination of festive colors, light play and hints of a jovial atmosphere inside offer a tantalizing invitation.

Action at GG takes place on the second floor, as was true with restaurants that previously occupied its Market Street space. Lightfoot was there before slipping around the corner to the old People's Bank building, and The Ledges was the previous tenant.

The cafe is run by the Pines of Florence and is similar to another edition of the restaurant in Arlington run by the Pines of Naples. Actually, the owner of both is Shafi Khan, who has been in the restaurant business for 20 years, much of it in the Washington area. He opened GG eight months ago.

The manager of the Leesburg operation is Javed Iqbal, who started with Khan as a busboy 12 years ago. The chef is Jose Santos, who started with Khan 13 years ago as a dishwasher.

The first floor has a small bar and four seats, plus two couches. It is a way station on the journey upstairs, but while there, one should note the interesting trompe d'oeil wall treatment, with scenes of vineyards, ivy delicately climbing the walls and parts of brick peeking through stucco.

The kitchen is also on the first floor, which we thought meant a lot of useful stair exercise for the wait staff. But a cleverly installed dumbwaiter takes most of that strain.

But let's not stray too far from the sauces. We liked the mussels and calamari from the appetizer menu but struggled in choosing between red or white sauce for the mussels.

"White" was the firm direction of the personable and helpful Katie, our waitress. "It's my favorite," she said.

No wonder. A hearty offering, its salty flavor was reminiscent of the rocky seashore from which the mussels themselves sprang. The chef worked magic with white wine, olive oil, garlic, oregano, red peppers and basil. The key, they say, is fresh ingredients, a firm way of life at the cafe.

What emerged was a wonderful complement to the mussels. We must also offer a reminder about the nice, crusty Italian bread, but don't eat it all at once. We saved some to mop up the rest of the sauce (there was lots of it) and offer a gentle reminder that you do the same.

The calamari, lightly crisped and generous, came with a marinara sauce that added a pleasing zest. So we had two winners right off the bat.

The varied menu offers quite a selection, including several for vegetarians and children.

Entrees are in categories -- spaghetti, veal, seafood, chicken and homemade pasta. There's lots to meander through, so we took our time.

The choices, after some discussion, were lasagna from the homemade pasta section and veal scaloppine marsala. We were not disappointed.

The lasagna was a large but not unmanageable serving, and the combination of pasta, ground meat, rich tomato-based sauce and Italian herbs was tasteful and satisfying. Parmesan cheese cames on the side.

The veal, nicely done, came with spaghetti in the pleasant al dente range. Again, the sauce was notable, a brown, bone extract with marsala wine, subtly seasoned and enhanced by pure{acute}ed legumes and thinly sliced mushrooms. The taste was delicate and balanced, and the remaining bread proved useful here, too.

The dessert menu was difficult to ignore, and we gave up trying. Chocolate cannoli caught our eye, and the crisp shell with chocolate sweet cream was rewarding. It was cool and refreshing, more so if one dismissed the calories.

We were quite grateful for the reader's impulse to share her find, and we apologize for letting others in on her secret.

Is there a restaurant we should try? Send suggestions to wilkinsont@washpost.com.

A seafood delight: Zuppa de Pesce.The calamari is served with marinara.Chef Jose Santos presents an antipasto platter with greens, meats, cheese and peppers.