ROMAN HOLIDAY

So what if I'm the last to know about La Fontanella's combination of quality and value? At least I'm fully plugged into the popular culture. For instance, they've got this music out now where you don't actually sing, but speak rhyming words over a tuneless bass line. Groovy. Pareesa, 610 East Bell Road, Phoenix, 866-1906. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10:30 p.m.

This place used to be part of Tommy Tomaso's empire, but for three years it's been run by an Iranian who abandoned his engineering career for the uncertain world of food service. Working with plans and equations instead of customers has its advantages: They don't complain, send themselves back to the drawing board, or ask for doggie bags.

Indulging a passion for operating an Italian restaurant is a risky step, but the commitment shows. Pareesa doesn't run on automatic pilot--it's charming.

The restaurant is decked out in romanticized rustic Italian that comes perilously close to Disneyland. White plaster pillars appear to support a balcony. Faux windows built into the walls have wood shutters and lace curtains. The one by us was painted to include a child looking out and a cat eyeing a caged canary. Wrought-iron lampposts and dozens of fake red geraniums add to the feel. So does the gazebo in the center of the room, dividing the smoking and nonsmoking sections.

The hardworking crew of waiters dresses in traditional Italian-restaurant garb: black pants, ruffled white shirts and vests. The background music is Mozart, Brahms and low.

On a recent sweltering Thursday night, when even the lizards lacked the energy to crawl out from their rocks, we thought Pareesa would be empty. Instead, it was buzzing. We had to wait for a table in the nonsmoking section, and only a couple of tables remained for inhalers. The first course gave us an indication of why people would give up standing under their air-conditioning vents (our favorite summertime evening activity) and trek out to eat.

First the waiter delivered some freebie bruschetta, lovely grilled Italian bread brushed with garlic, basil, olive oil and tomatoes. Next came some terrific escargots, six extremely tender, buttery, garlicky beauties that seemed popular at neighboring tables, too. We also got a large half-order of chewy gnocchi, potato and ricotta dumplings in a mild tomato-basil sauce.

Our Iranian engineer, however, clearly doesn't have his heart in the salad course. Why else the desultory lettuce, mushy quartered tomato, single slice of mushroom and indifferent dressing? Put in some artichoke, a salami slice and peperoncini and diners won't think they've stumbled into Denny's.

Dinner got back on track with the main dishes. Like La Fontanella, Pareesa doesn't either sink to spaghetti and meatballs or reach for the heights of veal sweetbreads.

Instead, it serves up old favorites like cioppino. But mine didn't come the way I used to get it in San Francisco, with a big pot of seafood swimming in a hot and bubbling tomato broth. Here tons of salmon, snapper, clams, scallops, shrimp, calamari, octopus and mussels arrived heaped on a bed of linguini in a thin tomato sauce. It's a good choice for desert dwellers longing for a fish fix, and there'll be plenty left over for tomorrow's lunch.

Saltimbocca is another standby: veal scaloppine saut‚ed in butter and topped with prosciutto and sage leaf. It comes with some ordinary rigatoni and a pleasing assortment of fresh vegetables.

Cannelloni, thin pasta crepes stuffed with ground veal, chicken, spinach and cheese in a creamy white sauce, were right on target, but the portion seemed a bit niggardly for $10.95. Two of these just would not fill me up.

Almost everyone in our section refused dessert, telling waiters they were full while they patted their bellies. At first this seemed the coward's way out. The generous homemade cannoli was thick with chocolate chips and candied fruit. But Pareesa hasn't quite mastered the creamy filling. It was neither smooth nor rich enough. And after one bite of cheesecake, my wife laid down her fork with finality, saying it wasn't worth the calories. She was right. Skip the dessert, though, and Pareesa's still delightful. Chow, baby.

ALL SHOOK UP? THAT HORRIBLE ANNIVERSARY ... v8-12-92

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