ROMAN HOLIDAY

La Fontanella, 4231 East Indian School, Phoenix, 955-1213. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 4:30 to 10 p.m.

For two years, my wife and I lived in a remote Peace Corps outpost on the fringes of the Sahara Desert. During that time, the "plumbers" broke into Watergate, Spiro Agnew resigned, people waited in line for high-priced gasoline and the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam. We heard about these goings-on, but knew little more about them than the sheep in our yard did. Meanwhile, vast areas of popular culture completely passed us by. I remember seeing a Time magazine headline: "Rock Star Dies in Air Crash." It was Jim Croce, someone I'd never heard of.

When we visited the States, we tried to catch up. We went to see The Sting, which by then was playing for a buck at a third-run movie theatre. Gee, we commented to each other on the way out, that music was real catchy. No kidding, said our friends. Unknown to us, the country was in the midst of a Scott Joplin craze, with ragtime played everywhere from symphony halls to Irish wakes. It's easy to look like a dolt when you're the last to grasp the obvious. So I'm probably at risk singing the praises of La Fontanella, a first-class Italian restaurant run by Chicago refugees that's been around the Valley a lot longer than I have.

La Fontanella is positioned between your cheap neighborhood pasta joint and an upscale Italian trattoria. You won't find either linguini with clam sauce or risotto on the menu. Instead, it features traditional chicken, seafood, lamb and veal dishes, expertly prepared.

From the outside, it's an unprepossessing place, a ranch-style building with a couple of pillars and a half-hidden fountain with a cherub perched on the edge. Inside, it has a pleasant Italian-inn look. Tables sport pink tablecloths, with matching pink vases holding fresh carnations and baby's breath. Paintings of assorted Italian scenes in assorted styles line the walls, and filmy, white-lace curtains hide most of the Indian School Road traffic. Endless tapes of Italian music are just quiet enough to permit conversation. The appetizers are about as trendy as the decor, but that suits me fine. My 1983 Nissan Sentra still purrs, and my wife's been running even longer, and I can't see any benefit of trading either of them in. In life as well as at the table, change is not necessarily progress.

Take the antipasto. I could no more give up this time-tested platter of prosciutto-wrapped honeydew melon, pancetta, salami, roasted red pepper, olives, quartered artichoke hearts, tomato and asiago cheese than I could abandon the odd-numbered Ten Commandments.

For more tradition, we ordered the supplç. A Roman specialty, they're rice croquettes stuffed with mozzarella, deep-fried in an egg batter. They're crisp and light, scrumptious all on their own. A good thing, since the accompanying meat sauce was so salty. The main dishes here make me wish I had studied at the Institute for Advanced Adjectives. Then I could tap a monograph on "Seventy-Three Descriptive Phrases That Mean 'Delicious.'" Until then I'm reduced to reporting that La Fontanella's rack of lamb, osso buco and seafood reale are simple, hearty and lip-smacking good. The rack of lamb almost put me in a swoon. Four unbelievably tender lamb chops come rubbed with spices, Dijon mustard and a sprinkling of breadcrumbs. If Americans could sample juicy lamb like this, the Cattlemen's Association would soon have as many members as the Saddam Hussein Fan Club. Good lamb, cooked right, leaves beef in the pasture.

A wedge of seasoned artichoke, some crispy roast potato and a plate of spaghetti came with the lamb. They made an appealing platter, fragrant and filling.

Carnivores will find the osso buco another winner. It's veal shank, a thick hunk of meat clinging to the bone. It's braised in wine, seasoned with parsley, thyme, diced plum tomatoes and lots of pancetta. It's fall-off-the-bone moist and tender, and rests on some firm fettuccine dressed in a light tomato sauce. If fragrant lamb and veal don't excite you, and you're still registering a pulse, seafood reale will set it racing. Four big shrimp and more than a dozen scallops sit atop fettuccine flecked with pine nuts and doused with a rich sherry cream sauce. If you manage to finish it, I'd advise against operating heavy machinery for the rest of the evening.

After a satisfying main course, there's always a worry about dessert letdown. But La Fontanella, with its homemade offerings, was on a roll.

The gelato, for which the restaurant is well-known (it's even stocked by some local supermarkets), deserves its reputation. We had the chocolate hazelnut, intensely rich, and studded with pieces of rum-soaked cake. My 100-pound wife usually won't even nibble at sweets: She has a dessert calorie-to-taste meter, calibrated to NASA-like specifications, that enables her to resist unworthy temptations with the assurance of a skilled poker player who declines to fill an inside straight. However, she practically arm-wrestled me over the gelato.

I didn't mind losing, because that gave me the cannoli all to myself, a crisp, fresh shell stuffed with creamy filling and candied fruit.

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