The Friendly Neighbor 

Gus' Italian Café is the kind of place where everybody knows your name.

And that doesn't count the guys milling around the smoky bar, ball caps in place, watching a game on the tube or eyeballing a half-dozen women at a nearby table. It's a place "where everybody knows your name," and everybody who is anybody in Mechancisville is there, except Gus. He sold the restaurant in 1987 to his employee Scott Stout. (Gus Bledsoe got out of the business for a few years and then resurfaced running a pizza joint on the South Side.)

In 1991, Stout moved the restaurant to its present location off Route 301 in an L-shaped strip mall anchored by a Ukrop's. He added the sports bar two years later.

The food is straightforward — pasta, pizza, steak and seafood, often offered in combinations. The closest Gus' gets to cutesy-pooh is a slice of lemon in the tap water. Otherwise, it's a beer-from-the-bottle, ketchup-on-the-table kind of place.

Pizza reigns supreme at Gus'. The pies are served on elevated platters from which cheese oozes over the edge. Whether it is a lunch-sized, 6-ounce slice that comes with the topping of your choice ($4) or the dinner-sized "Gus' special, ($18), a bet-you-can't-eat-it-all concoction loaded with everything imaginable — green peppers, onions, mushrooms, sausage, pepperoni, ham, ground beef, anchovies, black olives, jalapeno peppers and extra cheese — with a thick and chewy crust, and just this side of greasy.

But there is more to Gus' than pizza. The large menu features many hearty, failsafe choices, such as a heaping mound of spaghetti with two oversized meatballs smothered in a spicy marinara sauce ($8.95). The steak and cake comes with a sizzling 12-ounce rib-eye with two crab cakes fried just enough to produce a light crusty exterior ($15.95). The lightly broiled sea scallops ($12.95), which drift in a herb, garlic, lemon and butter sauce, are also a good choice.

Each meal comes with a house salad with sweet Italian dressing, and plenty of homemade bread, seasoned with, but not overpowered by, that most indispensable ingredient of Italian kitchens — garlic.

With its good food, efficient servers and pleasant atmosphere — red booths, vinyl table coverings and walls covered with celebrity photos and Norman Rockwell prints — Gus' manages to bridge the generational gap. It is at once a date place, a sports bar and a family place, whose regulars appear to be mostly blue-collar or clerical workers, reflecting the neighborhood. But first-time visitors fit in easily. Gus' has live music about once a month on Fridays — a lively couple known as Wendy and Ray banged out solid rock 'n' roll the night of our visit — and there is karaoke every Wednesday and Saturday night. S

Don Baker has been reviewing restaurants since he retired as Richmond bureau chief for the Washington Post in '99. He has worked as a waiter and maitre-d' and has a dining Web site, diningpro.com. He last reviewed restaurants for Style in the late '80s.

Gus' Italian Café and Sports Bar ($$)

1139-A Bell Creek Road, Mechanicsville.


Lunch and Dinner: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. until midnight;

Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.

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