ATLANTIC CITY -The striped awning caught our attention, even as the whistles and bells of the slot machines forced our thoughts to drift away for just a minute. We had been to the Trattoria Il Mulino during the Atlantic City Restaurant Week and liked what we had seen and tasted and especially liked the casual family atmosphere. We were returning this night to the more formal restaurant, Il Mulino, expecting a classic Italian menu and service. Peering through the window into the dark and mysterious dining room, Il Mulino seemed to be exactly what we had hoped to find. The scene could have been set somewhere in any cosmopolitan Italian city with a couple of hungry diners searching for the perfect place to have a serious plate of pasta.

Once inside, a display area behind the maitre d's podium was abundant with colorful fresh produce, dried pasta, assorted bottles of wines and vinegars and various condiments for the table. A small bar area on the other side of the room buzzed with activity, a precursor of the scene to come.

Our captain verbally offered the many appetizer and entree specials with great fanfare then handed us a menu with a separate handout of the very same specials. Overkill, we thought.

Il Mulino comes on strong from the moment you sit down with a plethora of free antipasti and breads beginning with a plate of paper-thin rounds of seasoned sauteed zucchini followed by a small plate of cured hard salami slices. A server next came to our table to hand deliver tomato bruschetta and cold mussels on the half shell - also free - to keep us busy. Three different types of bread were served in a basket while a separate portion of garlic bread arrived for good measure.

We chose the tuna carpaccio ($21) from the list of specials and loved the paper- thin slices that covered a perfectly seasoned baby arugula salad hidden underneath. An appetizer of polenta and sausage ($14) was a plate of diamond polenta shapes matched with some pieces of overcooked sausage with no strong flavor profile. The only saving grace was the flavorful brown sauce served on the plate. Veal Saltimbocca ($31.75) was a classic combination of tender veal, sage, prosciutto and demi glaze paired together on the plate, with an unseasoned addition of some sauteed spinach underneath the scallopine. As soon as it arrived we realized we had forgotten to choose from the contorni section which listed several possible vegetable and starch sides at $12.00 per portion. Lastly, a plate of ravioli porcini ($40) cooked al dente, were overstuffed pockets of earthy tasting mushroom slices, highlighted by the scent of truffle oil, in a sauce the color of mushrooms themselves. Grated cheese and fresh ground black pepper was offered and accepted.

From the beginning, the service staff came on much too strong, with people stopping by so often it was difficult to have a continuous conversation at the table.

More obviously, a lack of communication between the staff members accounted for a constant flow of people stopping by to make the same offer over and over again, the maitre d' offered drinks as soon as we were seated and while he was retrieving our bottle, the captain arrived and made the same offer again. At times, the service was almost chaotic, with staff running around the room as captains struggled to direct their activities. Service was often overbearing, like overselling bottles of water. Good service can be much less intrusive, be performed with fewer interruptions and still seem attentive.

After our savory food courses were cleared away, a server came out with a fresh table cloth, which he proceeded to flap in the air like a flag as he rolled it into a coil, then laid it over top of our already clean tablecloth. The tablecloth trick seemed more bravado than necessity after having already been crumbed, although we watched a waiter at the next table who didn't know how to use his crumber properly.

For dessert we sampled a bright tasting mango sorbetti served in its own shell and a chocolate cake with whipped cream and zabaglione, $14 each. Perfect cappuccino and espresso followed.

A blueberry flavored grappa made by the maitre d' was offered "on the house" at the end of the meal, a perfect closer to such wonderful food.

The noise level at Il Mulino was high. While appropriate music played nicely in the background throughout our meal, other conversations and service noise enveloped our table.

A table nearby with a young man and three slightly inebriated young ladies was distracting at best, and an unfortunate series of flash photography was permitted to go on much too long for the comfort of the surrounding paying guests. Even the young man seemed embarrassed. To our way of thinking, this was the time for the dining room staff to have insinuated themselves for the benefit of the rest of the diners, but no one did. Someone from the staff should have politely asked them to tone it down.

(C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt c/o Food Editor James Clark at jclark@pressofac.com. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)

Il Mulino

1000 Boardwalk

Trump Taj Mahal

Atlantic City

Phone: 609-449-6006

Hours: Daily 5 to 10 p.m.;

5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Monday

Rating:

Liquor license: Yes

Credit cards: Most major

Disabled access: Yes

Price Range: Appetizers $15.75 to $26, entrees $25.75 to $70

Our bill for two: $170

plus tip