One of Jon's friends told Jon, who told me, Strapazza is a Italian restaurant that's really Italian. Nice name, Strapazza. I called for reservations for four, and the woman on the other end of the line giggled. "Reservations? Sure, I suppose. Look, why don't you call tomorrow?" "Well, but I'm on the phone now," I said. "Can't I make them now?" "Sure, if you want 'em," she said.

Next night, Frank and I showed up with two Italian friends -- let'call them Mimi and Al. Mimi and Al know Italian cooking. Years ago, Mimi taught me gnocchi, Al taught me ricotta pies. They know risottos, ragus, spezzatini, minestrones, raviolis, the works.

We found a parking place in front of the restaurant's front door, and stared at the room before we went in. It was brightly lit, like pizza parlors look in the movies. A big counter in the back. Wire-back chairs with cushioned seats, and good-sized plain black tables. Mirrors. Big. Busy, but not packed. Plenty of kids sprinkled around, a couple of little ones standing on the furniture. A family place. "It means really, really crazy," Mimi said. "Strapazza. Crazy."

We went in, skipped the reservations (it was pretty obvious nobody bothered with them), found ourselves a table, heaped our coats on a chair, stood by the table, and watched a waitress wipe someone else's oil and crumbs off it. Perfectly OK, OK? Not a tablecloths-and-fresh-flowers kind of place. Then we sat down and checked the menu, which listed, among other things, pizzabilities and pastabilities, and iced tea, Coca-Cola, Sprite, Orange and Diet Coke for drinks. We wanted wine.

"End of the street," the waitress said. "Called Saloon." Frank left, having instructed us to order him some chicken Valdostana ($7.75). We got mozzarella sticks ($3.95), a 14-inch white pizza -- (7.95), penne alla primavera ($5.75), homemade lasagna ($5.65) and chicken parmigiana ($6.25).

There were tall glasses of water with lemon slices on their rims. Frank came back when the mozzarella sticks appeared. "Had to go around the corner, down York, and around the next corner, into Pennsylvania," he said. His nose was red from the cold. "They didn't have much." A Ruffino chianti and a Saint Morillon. Courtesy of the house, we secured a bottle opener and glasses.

"Funny thing, this American invention, mozzarella sticks," Mimi said. "My students taught me about them, bowling in Timonium." "Very strange, with tomato sauce," Al said, dipping a stick in the stuff. "Pepperoncino. In the sauce," Mimi said, tasting the sauce on a fork. "Not bad. Could be worse." The breading on the deep-fried cheese tasted commercial.

The white pizza wasn't exactly a white pizza. Most of the time a white pizza is mostly white. Bread, oil and parmigiano. This one was "the colors of Italy!" -- red tomatoes, green broccoli and white circles of warm ricotta. Pleasant. Soggy under the wet parts, crackly rough at the edge.

We were beginning to get the idea, though. Real Italy? Eh (a la a shrug of the shoulders, a cupping of the hand)! We read the motto on the back of the menu: "Everybody can make Pizza and Italian Food, but to make it right you've got to be Italian or learn from an Italian." Dubious information definitely inapplicable in the circumstance.

On the other hand, prices were low. What had happened was, we'd strayed into a neighborhood diner. An eatery. Not the sort of place that has it in mind to have itself written about.

The penne, those long, large tubes that are cut on the bias, so to speak, came with mushrooms and broccoli in a cheese sauce. "Not primavera," Mimi pointed out. "Never mushrooms with primavera. Peas, broccoli, OK." But pleasant, like macaroni and cheese. The chicken parmigiana was mostly tomato sauce. A chicken breast under tomato sauce. Lots of spaghetti.

The chicken Valdostana was a chicken breast under a slice of prosciutto with mushrooms and the same tomato sauce. Some mozzarella. Wet. Homemade lasagna? Broad noodles, tough and hard where they rose out of the sauce. Tomato sauce. Mostly ricotta cheese, or a cheese that formed small curds in the sauce.

Our desserts were a very simple tiramisu ($3.25), with an oddly firm outer edge, and a Vaccaro's cannoli ($1.65), fresh, but filled, of course, not with ricotta, but with some other sort of sweetened cream paste. We'd ordered a cake, but they were out, though they charged us for the cake anyway, not for the cannoli.

Such things happen. Honest mistakes. Our decaffeinatecappuccinos were terrific. $1.75 each. Very nice cappuccino. Ciao.

Strapazza, 10-12 Allegheny Ave., Towson, 296-5577

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays, until 11 p.m.

Fridays and Saturdays, noon to 10 p.m. Sundays

Accepts: VISA, Master Card

Features: Italian food

Next: Robert Morris Inn

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