There is a difference, I once learned, between Machiavelli and machiavellismo. The one is an actual man, making historically specific arguments (the strong state, the all-Italian army), and the other is a travesty.

You can yammer on all you like about the ends justifying the means, but this is not Machiavelli, just as there is Italian food that is not Italian food. (Any time you put chicken on a pizza, it is no longer Italian food.) Most restaurants fall somewhere along the continuum that has Italian American food distilled from Sicilian and Neapolitan cuisine on one end, and chic, artful, ultra-faithful regional dishes on the other. Ristorante Machiavelli occupies a place that not many restaurants seem to care about: basic Italian food made exactly right.

I returned recently to Machiavelli after a long absence, partly because the Mario Batali-style insistence on intimacy with each hard-to-find ingredient has come to seem precious unto death, and partly because the best things are often right under our snooty noses. I last ate there 10 years ago with an old boyfriend; we shared a plate of perfect antipasto ($7.95), and then I had an ethereal fettuccine carbonara ($8.75), that combination of pancetta and pepper and eggs that seems like it should be illegal. This is simple food, but not easy. (Just try to make a good carbonara at home.)

There are few dishes on the menu you haven't heard of, and more that are so ubiquitous as to appear in some form in a Stouffer's box (fettuccine Alfredo, $8.50; spaghetti Bolognese, $7.95; eggplant parmigiana, $8.95). But there's a reason these dishes have made it into the supermarket vernacular, and in Machiavelli's version, God, as the man said, is in the details. The Bolognese is not an indifferent ragù, but a delicate combination of ground meats and chicken liver. The antipasto plate has just a few cured meats, and lots of olives and pickled mushrooms; it is pointedly not overwhelmed by cheese--a lone pair of ultrafresh mozzarella slices is quite enough. My dinner companion, who is allergic to everything, was very happy with tortellini, filled with beef and sausage in a perfect marinara sauce ($9.95): tart, dense, and sweet, but tasting more of tomatoes than of sugar or herbs.

There was not a single precious note to our dinner, not a single misstep. I was thrilled, for example, to find the tuna carpaccio ($8.50) closer to tuna salad than to tuna sorbet. Trust me: The fish was gorgeous, in translucent slices that fell apart under the slightest pressure from the side of a fork. But instead of letting the tuna rule the plate, the kitchen had been liberal with this creamy-mustardy sauce and lots and lots of capers. We forget, I think, to look past the cult of toro, to the fact that tuna is also delicious with mayonnaise and pickles; Machiavelli's kitchen manages to invoke both ideals without sacrificing anything.

I went on to devour a plate of spinach lasagna with chicken livers ($8.95). This is, again, casual food, not the tight-ass (but don't get me wrong: delicious) béchamel- layered construction you find at Café Lago, but a big sloppy plate of tender noodles, that tart marinara mentioned above, and dense, meaty livers (although I would have appreciated a couple more). The only shame was that I couldn't manage to eat more than one entrée; the roasted chicken (with rosemary and garlic, $12.50) at the next table looked mighty good, and I am an absolute whore for buttery, lemony veal piccata ($14.95).

The sage-green dining room is tiny, best suited to parties of two, but no matter how crowded it gets, the service is brisk and excellent. There were three waitresses working the floor, and we were attended to by all of them; you don't watch your dinner languish in the kitchen window while your waiter is busy with someone else--whoever is available grabs it, and brings it to you piping hot. This, I suppose, is service à la machiavellismo--what matters, in the end, is the satisfied, slightly stunned diner, grunting her thanks and rolling out the door.

Ristorante Machiavelli
1215 Pine St, 621-7941. Mon-Sat 5-11 pm. Closed Sun.