It doesn’t look like a whole lot from the outside — its building was once, after all, Sunriver’s first general store, gas station and post office — but Marcello’s Cucina Italiana is one of those books that shouldn’t be judged by its cover.

This Sunriver restaurant is one of the best Italian restaurants in Central Oregon.

Behind its modest facade is a handsome and spacious restaurant of multiple levels. Brick arches and walls are interspersed with ocher-painted wood. There are fireplaces, cathedral ceilings and a skylit loft. The work of local photographers and painters hangs on its walls. A cozy lounge, one of Sunriver’s most inviting, has a private entrance.

First dinner

My first meal at Marcello’s was a delightful surprise. From the moment I entered the restaurant, I felt as welcome as I might at a friend’s home. Although the restaurant had several guests already dining, the hostess offered me a choice of tables. Soon after I was seated, a bus person poured me a glass of fresh ice water, and a server introduced herself and brought a menu.

The excellent service continued throughout that evening and on a subsequent visit with different staff members working. My orders were taken efficiently and delivered quickly. The servers checked back several times during the meals to ensure that my dining companions and I were pleased with my food.

This initial dinner was a solo one. It began with a basket of fresh, warm, homemade bread, served with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. A house salad followed — fresh arugula, spinach and red-leaf lettuce, tossed with croutons and a tangy Italian dressing, sprinkled with Italian seasonings.

My veal Marsala entree was especially delicious. Served on a bed of garlic-infused mashed potatoes, it was cloaked in a Marsala wine-based sauce of diced red onions and mushrooms. The meat was very tender; the accompanying broccoli buds were served al dente, as I prefer them.

My server came by and offered a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. I said yes, thank you … on everything.

Return visit

Several days later, two friends joined me for dinner. As a starter, we shared an order of calamaretti fritti — baby squid, lightly seasoned and pan-fried. We fought good-naturedly over the tentacles. Of the two dipping sauces, I preferred the Dijon cream, which I likened to an Alfredo sauce. A hearty, tomato-rich marinara sauce went largely untouched.

My companions started with house salads, as I had done on my first visit. This time I began with the soup of the day, a light and creamy potage of potatoes, vegetables and chicken. It was well-seasoned and a good start to my chicken dinner.

The pollo alla Romana was a perfectly sauteed chicken breast, topped with spinach and sliced mushrooms, and ladled with a Gorgonzola cheese-based sauce. A member of the blue cheese family, Gorgonzola can be overpowering if not employed with subtlety; in this dish, it had just the right amount to complement the poultry. A portion of spaghetti and steamed broccoli completed the entree.

Both of my friends opted for seafood dinners. One had Marcello’s linguini puttanesca. Scallops, salmon and black tiger prawns were sauteed with diced tomatoes, mushrooms, artichokes and capers in a pesto-like sauce with olive oil, garlic and oregano. The whole thing was tossed with al-dente linguini.

My other friend ordered the day’s special: pan-seared salmon in a creamy, basil-rich pesto sauce. Our server didn’t blink an eye when she indicated she’d prefer mashed potatoes to the risotto normally served with the entree. She liked the meal so much, she ate every last bite.

From a very respectable list of Italian and American wines, available by the bottle or glass, we ordered a 2007 King Estate pinot noir to accompany our meals.

Family operation

Marcello’s building, which it shares with Cafe Sintra, was built in 1968 in the early years of the Sunriver Resort. A pizza parlor took over the space 10 years later, and it evolved into Marcello’s in 1980.

The restaurant was purchased in December 2005 by the Lodge family — adult children joined by their parents, who moved to Central Oregon from Ohio. Thad Lodge managed the restaurant for a year and a half before the change of ownership, at which time his sister, Autumn, and their father, Tom, also took an active role in the business.

And Marcello’s is as family-friendly as it is family-run. Children are embraced here, and the lengthy list of stone-oven-baked calzones and pizzas seems geared largely to them. There are also a range of desserts, from tiramisu to Snicker pie, to appeal to a youthful (and adult) sweet tooth.

SMALL BITES

Zydeco Kitchen + Cocktails is now open seven days a week for dinner. And the restaurant is more family-friendly than ever: Kids 10 and younger eat free on Sundays. “This (economic slump) is the time when you’ve got to kind of give back a little bit to the community,” said owner and executive chef Steve Helt. Prices on many entrees have been reduced; jambalaya and roasted chicken dinners are now $16, steaks around $25. The wine list also features several lower-priced vintages. Open 5 p.m. to close every day. 1085 S.E. Third St., Bend; 541-312-2899, www.zydecokitchen.com .

Portello winecafe , closed for more than a month after a sprinkler pipe burst in a second-story office directly above it, expects to reopen Jan. 23, according to owners Lance Newman and Mitch Chamberlain. Spokane singer-guitarist Marshall McLean is scheduled to launch a new weekly live music series at the NorthWest Crossing cafe at 6 p.m. Jan. 24. Open 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 2754 N.W. Crossing Dr., Bend; 541-385-1777, www .portellowinecafe.com .

RECENT REVIEWS

Cafe Yumm! (B+): Launched in Eugene in 1991 on the premise that rice and beans are a healthy, nutritious meal, Yumm! expanded to Bend in December 2007. Budget-priced, with particular attention to vegetarian and other special diets, the cafe serves excellent soups and salads in an atmosphere of industrial chic. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday (winter hours). 325 S.W. Powerhouse Dr. (The Old Mill District), Bend; 541-318-9688, www.cafeyumm.com .

Bo Restobar (A-): Sleek and stylish, with a Euro-Asian appeal, this casual offshoot of Typhoon! Thai restaurant offers dishes rooted in a variety of Asian cultures. An evolving menu is strong in small plates and noodle dishes, such as beef yakiniku. Try the lemongrass trout grilled in banana leaves. A friendly bar staff specializes in exotic drinks. Open noon to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday, noon to 1 a.m. Friday, 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday. 550 N. W. Franklin Ave., Suite 118, Bend; 541-617-8880, www.borestobar .com/bend.html.

Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar (B-): There are nearly 2,000 Applebee’s across North America and Europe; the two in Central Oregon are faithful to the corporate model in food and atmosphere. Entrees are decent but not top quality, and side dishes are sub-standard. Prices are moderate, service polite but inconsistent. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 3197 N. U.S. Highway 97, Bend (541-318-5720) and 3807 S.W. 21st Place, Redmond (541-923-4777), www.applebees.com .

The Village Baker (B+): Great bread — freshly baked French levains and Italian bigas — sets the tone for marvelous sandwiches and pastries at this west-side Bend outpost. Soups and salads are enticing, and the house-made granola (toasted oats with nuts, seeds and dried fruit) makes a great breakfast. Counter service is friendly but sometimes slow in this clean, bright bakery. Open 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day. 1470 S.W. Knoll Ave., Bend; 541-318-1054.

Location: 4 Ponderosa Road (at Beaver Drive), Sunriver

Hours: 5 p.m. to close every day (lounge opens at 4 p.m. every day)

Price range: Appetizers $6 to $12, pastas $10 to $19, entrees $16 to $25

Credit cards: American Express, Discover, MasterCard, Visa

Children’s menu: Yes

Vegetarian menu: Yes; salads, pastas, pizzas and eggplant Parmigiana

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar

Outdoor seating: No

Reservations: Accepted

Contact: 541-593-8300 or www.sunrivernet.com/marcellos

Scorecard

OVERALL: A

Food: A-. Nearly every selection sampled from an extensive menu was perfectly prepared.

Service: A. Excellent, attentive service makes diners feel as welcome as at a friend’s home.

Atmosphere: A. Brick arches and fireplace warmth accent a handsome and spacious restaurant.

Value: A-. Moderate prices are well within the range of other Italian restaurants in the area.

Visit www.bendbulletin.com /restaurants for readers’ ratings of more than 150 Central Oregon restaurants.

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