There are perhaps three restaurants in Sunriver that I consider to be worth the 15-mile drive from Bend simply for the meal. The one that stands out as unique is Marcello’s Cucina Italiana.

In a region with few other truly outstanding, nonfranchise Italian restaurants — only Trattoria Sbandati, on Bend’s west side, stands out — Marcello’s has a 35-year history as an independently owned restaurant, including the last 10 years with the same family.

This is a very good Italian restaurant, with gourmet dishes served by a professional staff in beautiful surroundings. It’s especially welcoming in winter, when fireplaces warm the handsome, spacious building to its brick arches, cathedral ceilings and skylit loft. The work of local photographers and painters hangs on the walls. A cozy lounge, one of Sunriver’s most inviting, has a private entrance.

The building, which Marcello’s shares with Café Sintra, was built in 1968 in the early years of the Sunriver resort. For about a decade, it served as Sunriver’s first general store, gas station and post office. Eventually, it became a pizza parlor that in 1980 evolved into Marcello’s. The Lodge family bought the restaurant in late 2005, and today it is operated by siblings Thad Lodge and Autumn Persinger.

Savory starters

Meals begin with a basket of bread, baked in-house daily, accompanied by a small dish of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It’s hard to resist the temptation to eat too much before other courses are served. Fortunately, the wait isn’t long.

On our first recent visit, my regular dining companion started with a grilled Portobello mushroom appetizer. Served with sautéed spinach in a light garlic cream sauce, it offered a savory start to the rest of the meal.

I opened with a cup of minestrone soup, house-made like everything on the menu. A tomato broth provided the base for a peppery blend of vegetables — zucchini, carrots, celery, onions, cannelloni beans and stewed tomatoes — along with macaroni pasta and mozzarella cheese.

The house salad of baby greens, Roma tomatoes, Kalamata olives, red onions and fresh mozzarella cheese was satisfactory with its balsamic vinaigrette. My companion’s Caesar salad was superior. Romaine lettuce with croutons and freshly grated asiago cheese was tossed with a homemade dressing, and anchovies were added for a small extra charge.

Her pollo alla Romana highlighted a tender chicken breast, perfectly sautéed, topped with spinach and sliced mushrooms and served with spaghetti and steamed vegetables in a flavorful but not overpowering gorgonzola cream sauce.

My entrée, pork osso buco, was much heartier. A shank slow-roasted and served on the bone, it towered above a plate of garlic mashed potatoes and seasonal veggies. A cream sauce made with Chianti wine and Dijon mustard was a perfect complement to the tender meat and a generous serving of mushrooms. I could have done without chopped jalapeno peppers, however.

Second time around

We began our second Marcello’s meal much as we had the first with an appetizer and the soup of the day, split pea with prosciutto (Italian bacon). Very thick and under-seasoned, it was good enough to eat, but wasn’t my favorite dish here.

As an antipasti, we shared an order of eggplant Brindisi. I found it similar in many ways to a Caprese salad, but unique enough to stand on its own. Chopped tomatoes, basil leaves and goat cheese (not mozzarella) were layered atop grilled slices of eggplant and drizzled with a balsamic reduction sauce. I haven’t had this elsewhere, and I would order it again.

As a main course, I chose a pasta meal, linguini puttanesca. Black tiger prawns, giant diver scallops and meaty chunks of pink salmon were sautéed with artichoke hearts, mushrooms, diced tomatoes and capers in a garlicky pesto sauce, then tossed with flat linguini noodles. It was delicious.

My companion had a steak: a 10-ounce flat-iron cut, grilled medium rare and finished with a rich mushroom demi-glace that went perfectly with her garlic mashed potatoes. For good measure, she added three prawns to make her dinner a “surf and turf.”

An excellent wine list of Italian and American vintages is enhanced by a nightly “value selection” of a quality white or a red at $20 a bottle.

Dining at Marcello’s was like being invited into a friend’s home. On each visit, we were offered a choice of tables, then were quickly visited by a bus person, who poured fresh ice water, and a server. Orders were quickly and accurately taken, and at the end of the evening, our server cheerfully boxed our leftovers and provided us with a bag to carry them home.

—Reporter: janderson@