Frank's Pizza

Rosa pasta, with a basket of bread, at Frank's PIzza. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun / March 21, 2012)

Tucked into a strip mall on a busy stretch of Belair Road in Overlea, Frank's Pizza & Pasta seems like a million other pizza joints.

It's worth a closer look.

Owner Armando Buontempo deftly handles traditional dishes from his native Italy, revealing a passion for Italian food. Whether he's behind the stove or chatting up his regulars, Buontempo radiates a friendly enthusiasm he shares with the rest of the staff — which includes his wife and two children. (Frank's was always a family affair; the restaurant is named after Buontempo's cousin and original co-owner, who passed away in the late 1980s). These little flourishes help set Frank's apart from the rest.

Frank's atmosphere is welcoming, though the interior isn't very exciting. A glass counter dominates the restaurant and a handful of simple booths occupy the space just inside the front window. By the bathroom, stacks of pizza boxes compete for space with cardboard cartons stuffed with Christmas decorations. Frank's is clean, but after 26 years of pizza, pasta and community fundraisers, the restaurant shows its age.

Once dinner starts, it's easy to look past the scruff and clutter. On a recent Friday night, Frank's was bustling with a wide variety of customers — teenagers, young families, older couples — picking up carry-out orders or settling in with a bottle of wine (Frank's is BYOB and does not charge a corkage fee).

We snagged a corner booth before ordering at the counter, where several staff members efficiently juggled customers. Diners eating in the restaurant can order off of the carry-out menu, which includes staples like pizza, salads, calzones, subs and simple pastas, or off the restaurant menu, featuring more involved appetizers and nearly 50 pasta dishes. Those dining in also reap the benefit of table service: After placing our order, our food was delivered by a friendly and helpful waitress.

We started out with a single slice of Neapolitan-style cheese pizza ($2.29), which arrived piping hot with an incredibly thin crust and a cheese-to-sauce ratio that highlighted the saltiness of the cheese and the bright acid of the tomato sauce.

Our debate about whether to get another slice was cut short by the arrival of warm, doughy bread and small salads, which came with the dinner pastas we ordered. The salads, a crunchy mix of lettuce, tomato, cucumber and banana peppers dressed in an herbaceous house vinaigrette, were fresh and — thanks to the peppers— a little spicy.

Pasta and pizza sauces at Frank's are all made in-house, using recipes that Buontempo first learned in Italy. Each year, he travels back to his Italian hometown to visit family, and to bring even more recipes back to Baltimore.

We enjoyed the veal piccata ($15.98), a traditional take on the Italian standby. Served over angel hair pasta, the veal was lightly breaded and pounded to about a quarter-inch — just the right thickness to show off the meat's tender texture. The sauce was light and mildly lemony, with large, piquant capers and sauteed mushrooms adding an earthy element. All together, the dish found the right balance between savory and acidic flavors.

From the "land and sea" portion of the menu, the Rosa pasta ($15.98) was satisfying and hearty, but not too heavy. Farfalle (bow-tie) pasta came dressed in a pink sauce — a mixture of creamy alfredo sauce and tangy marinara — topped with chunks of chicken, lump crabmeat and shrimp. The chicken was a little dry, but forgivable, thanks to the sweet crab and a generous helping of shrimp that was cooked just right.

Buontempo's dedication to great traditional Italian food shined through in his sauces and pizza. The food at Frank's was definitely worth a repeat visit. But it was the restaurant's friendly atmosphere that made our experience special. Every person we came across, from the busy man taking orders to Buontempo himself, was welcoming and helpful.

After dessert — rich red velvet cake topped with thick cream cheese icing that looked beautiful, even in its plastic carry-out box ($4.69) — Buontempo stopped by our table to chat, or so we thought.

After a few words, he played a very funny prank that sent everybody around us into gales of laughter, especially the family of regulars at the next table, who knew what to expect (I won't share the prank, so it's not ruined for everyone else). Later, over the phone, Buontempo explained, a little sheepishly, "The only time we spend together, with our families, is around the table. Why not have a joke?"

Why not, indeed? That attitude made dinner at Frank's more than just a good Italian meal in modest surroundings. We felt like guests in Buontempo's dining room. In on the joke, like family. And definitely well-fed.

Frank's Pizza & Pasta

Back-story: Frank's Pizza & Pasta is a casual family-run and community-oriented restaurant in Overlea, serving authentic Neapolitan pizza and hearty traditional Italian specialties

Parking: There is a lot in front.

Signature dish: Try the Rosa pasta dish, farfalle dressed in a creamy combination of marinara and alfredo sauces, tossed with a satisfying mix of chicken, shrimp and crab.

Where: 6620 Belair Road, Baltimore

Contact: 410-254-2900, frankspizzaandpasta.com

Open: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, noon-9 p.m. Sunday

Credit Cards: MasterCard and Visa

Food: ✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭✭

Atmosphere: ✭✭

[Key: Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]