PASTA MANANA

Maria's When in Naples, 7000 East Shea, Scottsdale Promenade, Scottsdale, 991-6887. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Some things in life can make me happy out of all proportion to the tangible benefits they actually confer. Could a message from the Pulitzer Prize committee give me any more delight than learning that my wife intends to entertain the kids on Sunday so I can watch a football game in peace? Could even a big raise from the boss generate the same surge of pleasure I get when a supermarket checker opens up a new line and plucks me out from behind a woman bearing a full cart, a howling infant and 17 expired coupons?

After dining at Maria's When in Naples and Amoroso and Sons, I felt myself beaming with just this sort of profoundly satisfied contentment. It's not gourmet-driven ecstasy--for that kind of thrill, you have to look elsewhere. But if you're looking to be suffused with the genuine good cheer that comes from hearty Italian fare notable for quality and value, you won't be disappointed with either place.

There seems to be as many Italian restaurants in the Valley as Naples itself, and Maria's When in Naples is cleverly positioned in a relatively neglected market niche: the casually upscale pasta house. Yes, the menu does offer a few veal and chicken dishes--vitello alla marsala, pollo saltimbocca. On that front, however, Maria faces hordes of talented competitors.

But the competition thins out real fast when it comes to matching Maria's fresh, homemade pasta specialties, most of which are reasonably priced in the $10 to $12 range. It's a range easy to be at home on, considering the Scottsdale location, deft service and good-looking room.

This deceptively large place is smartly divided into several smaller spaces, so you don't get the warehouse-dining effect. You can gaze on a colorful mural of the Bay of Naples behind the brick arches or the shelves stocked with wine, olive oil and pasta. Maria has also wisely decided not to inflict piped-in accordion arrangements of "Come Back to Sorrento" and "O Sole Mio" on her customers. The only music you'll hear is the clatter of people having a good time.

One of the more visually stimulating sights is the antipasto spread, laid out just inside the dining-room entrance. No matter where you're seated, the host will steer you past the glistening array of platters when he guides you to your table. It's a very effective selling technique--I'd already mentally ordered it before I unfurled my napkin.

It's as good to eat as it is to look at. On one visit, it included lightly marinated artichokes, palm hearts, mushrooms, zucchini, roasted peppers, three kinds of olives, fresh mozzarella, tomato, prosciutto, melon, salami and escarole. Accompanied by a first-rate basket of fresh, toasted Italian bread, it's a wonderful way to get primed for dinner.

Two other starters are almost as tempting. In fact, the carpaccio--luscious, paper-thin slices of raw beef masterfully dressed with a beguiling lemon-mustard sauce teamed with arugula and cheese--could have gone right to the top of the appetizer list. But Maria's skimps a bit on the quality of the cheese. This dish needs some reggiano Parmigiano, a cheese with more bite than the one served here. Yes, the king of Parmesans is expensive, but I'd pay a buck more for the gastronomic thrill. The mussels marinara, meanwhile, brings five pleasant bivalves in a light sauce that could have benefited from a heavier hand with the seasonings.

The pasta entrees feature big portions of high-quality fare. Two of them especially stand out.

First, there's the orecchiette Barese. Small, perfectly cooked ear-shaped pasta gets tossed in a bowl with saut‚ed cauliflower, pancetta, sun-dried tomato and a hint of olive oil and cheese. This dish gives off an alluring combination of scents and flavors.

Second, there's the salsiccia Pugliese, extremely mild, homemade sausage, accompanied by a mound of fettuccine vigorously topped with leeks and porcini mushrooms in a white wine sauce. It's not often that I eat a dish where the last bite gives me just as much pleasure as the first. This is one of them.

If you're willing to reach into your wallet for a few extra bucks, the pescatore di Napoli will give you a fair return for your money. Scungilli, mussels, clams and calamari sit atop a pile of linguini, spiked with fresh tomatoes and basil. Close your eyes and you can plausibly pretend you're dining on the Italian coast.

Gnocchi, light potato dumplings in an understated tomato sauce, don't provide much in the way of hard-hitting flavors. But simplicity can also have its charms, and Maria's version shows that simple doesn't necessarily mean bland.

I did miss some garlic oomph in the ravioli di ricotta, six oversize, heart-shaped pouches stuffed with ricotta and moistened with a ladleful of pesto. The on-target al dente texture, however, kept me from dwelling too much on this shortcoming. The substantial ground veal- and chicken-filled cannelloni are gilded by a creamy b‚chamel sauce punctuated by an expressive dollop of meat sauce on top. Lasagna, however, is nothing special, especially in comparison with the other pasta dishes here. I found no distinguishing characteristics.

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