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Old-World Italian Meets Northwestern Nirvana

I love exploring for great places to eat and relax almost as much as random strangers now suddenly enjoy searching for Pokémon in my backyard. Needless to say, the irony wasn’t lost on me this week when one of my favorite online review sites began asking me if there was a Pokéstop nearby.

My recent exploration led me to Sunriver’s Marcello’s Cucina Italiana. From the outside, Marcello’s looks like a nondescript strip mall business, but inside, Marcello’s is a panoply of bold taste and color—kind of like Pikachu, with barbecue sauce.

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Marcello’s offers several traditional Italian dishes, but its shining stars are the ones it deems “Italian with a Northwestern twist.” These headliners include Linguine Puttanesca and Risotto Speciale. The linguine pairs the broad, elliptical pasta with prawns, scallops and salmon. Artichoke, diced tomato and pesto add a dash of color and a spark of freshness.

The risotto is more complicated. The dish changes nightly and includes a variety of seafood—typically three meats in addition to the risotto. Diners report combinations that include swordfish, red crab, Hawaiian opah, and salmon. Normally, I stay away from such ambitious blends (because they’re so often a witch’s brew for an unscheduled colon cleanse), but I had to see how lingcod, sturgeon, and Dungeness crab could prove an agreeable combination. I wasn’t let down. While each meat maintained its distinctive flavor, the aromatic, fishy stock of the risotto served as a cohesive anchor for the blend.

cascade-journal_august-2016_marcellos_009_533_800Italian is never just Italian. The cuisine is as varied as Italy itself, and even in the U.S., there are distinct regional Italian cuisines (e.g. St. Louis, Boston, and Chicago). Still, there are “certain standards that everyone expects an Italian restaurant to have,” says Marcello’s co-owner Autumn Persinger. Consequently, Marcello’s serves several of the old staples like spaghetti, lasagna, and ravioli.

Of the old favorites, I like the manicotti best because, not only are they stuffed full and topped with a generous layer of mozzarella and tangy tomatoes, but they ooze from their sides with a creamy, fragrant, dark-green pesto sauce.

The inclusion of so many items unfortunately results in a menu that only hyperbole can capture. Think folded checkerboard that opens into a trifold large enough to go tanning with. Add wine, beer, and happy hour lists printed on smaller menus and you won’t have to worry about sun protection for your eyes.

According to Persinger, Marcello’s is located in the first building built for the village of Sunriver. “It has periodically housed a laundromat, grocery store, post office, gas station, and video arcade,” she says. (See, perhaps a Pokéstop isn’t too much to ask for; after all, better Marcello’s backyard than mine.) In the 1980s, Marcello’s was born, and in 2005, Persinger and her brother Thad Lodge purchased the restaurant shortly after they moved to the area from Ohio. The restaurant remains family-owned today.

And Marcello’s has that family feel. Much of the staff has been there for several years. Two of the servers—Pete and Roberta—have garnered so many online reviews (all of them positive) from happy guests that the two can be searched for on Trip Advisor. When I asked Bill and Penny Wilson of nearby Water Wonderland what their favorite things are about Marcello’s, they stated that they’ve frequented the restaurant since the 1980s and have “never had a bad meal here ever.” (They also mentioned Roberta.)

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I haven’t had a bad experience at Marcello’s either. Even the dishes’ complements are as good as the dishes themselves. The calamari, for example, is crisp (no one likes squishy squid), and has a buttery, flaky batter accompanied by an inspired sweet marinara sauce juxtaposed with a bold-tasting Dijon cream. The arancini, fried risotto balls filled with mozzarella and jalapeño, is accompanied by a bleu cheese dip infused with stewed tomatoes. I’ve never had a bleu cheese that tasted so smooth.

Pricing is moderate to high, but not exorbitant for Sunriver. Plus, portion sizes are large, and Marcello’s does offer several attractive happy hour and lounge specials. (The unforgettable arancini and its drinkable sauce, for instance, is only $4 during happy hour.) The restaurant fills up early; most locals arrive from 4 to 5 p.m. If you’re coming later, be sure to make a reservation.

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