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Substantial and affordable pastas and pizza at Pikes Pizza

Picture a hotel conference room, filled with women seated at long tables and working on their scrapbooks. Pictures are being cropped, matted and framed while the pros and cons of markers vs. gel pens vs. colored shading pencils are hotly debated. Someone needs a royal blue capital "s." Another woman announces that she can't remember who the heck attended her wedding, which was 15 years ago, so how is she supposed to label the photos in the wedding album she is just now getting around to creating?

Reading the above may leave you confused, possibly frightened. But if you've been in that room or one like it, as I have, then you know that as evening approaches, you need a break for real food and a little air. You want someplace that doesn't have a 45-minute wait for a table, where the food is good and where you won't break the bank.

Since we were on the northwest side of town, we decided to hit Pikes Pizza and Pasta Co. for dinner. We started with an order or Prairie Fries ($3.95), which takes your basic pizza crust and slathers it with garlic, mozzarella, Parmesan and Romano cheeses and a zesty blend of Italian spices. The crust is baked to a golden brown then sliced into sticks, which you can dip into the thick, robust marinara sauce. We also splurged on Springs Wings ($4.50/half dozen), opting for the Midway (medium) heat. These were plump wings, spicy enough to leave your lips tingling with the vinegary, tangy pepper sauce, and with plenty of blue cheese or ranch dressing for dipping.

Since the Independent talked about Pikes Pizza's pizza ("Mama Mia," Nov. 28) in glowing terms already, I wouldn't let any of my dining companions order pizza. Let's face it -- I like telling people what to do. So we sampled a Pikes Pizza Calzone ($7.95 small, $13.95 large), which was layered with pepperoni, the superior, spicy homemade Italian sausage, mushrooms, green peppers, onions, black olives and-- in a daring move by our fearless leader Lynnette -- anchovies. This folded pizza was baked to perfection and served with extra marinara on the side, and the anchovies were perfectly balanced, discernable but not overdone. The Stromboli ($8.95-$14.95) is another close cousin of the pizza, with thin, crispy dough wrapped around some truly excellent, juicy ham, with mozzarella, provolone, onions and enough Swiss cheese for an interesting depth of flavor.

There are several pastas (from spaghetti to rigatoni) available in small or large portions and topped with one of nine sauces, including that thick, hearty marinara, primavera, Diablo Veggie, and red and white clam. Prices range from $3.95 to $7.95, and include fresh bread and butter. We tasted the Grilled Chicken Pesto ($8.95), which featured grilled breast strips combined with linguine, pesto and Parmesan cheese. It was a nicely balanced dish, with just the right amount of garlic. The Chicken Parmesan ($6.95 half portion, $9.95 full portion) was also excellent. A bed of perfectly cooked spaghetti holds a breaded chicken breast that is smothered under the marinara and baked with mozzarella and parmesan. The half portion was more than enough to fill me up, and none of us had room for dessert.

Pikes Pizza also offers a lunch buffet for $4.99, which might make it one of the best lunch deals going. The salad bar end of the line isn't incredibly imaginative, and could do with another vegetable or two. But the lettuce, green peppers and tomatoes that are out are very fresh, and you can ladle on the house dressing, which is a delicious vinaigrette given a special depth with bits of sun-dried tomato.

When I sampled the buffet, the pizzas were excellent, though they didn't do much to advertise the breadth of the kitchen's abilities. Offerings included pepperoni, cheese, an occasional sausage pizza, and a nice one topped with crisp shreds of green peppers and onions, plus black olives. There was warm and comforting baked spaghetti, and a pan of fettuccine with a choice of marinara (plain or with meatballs) or Alfredo sauce. The only drawback was a plain, smooth serving spoon for dishing up the fettuccine, a Herculean task at best. I hope some tongs or a large serving spork make their way to the buffet table soon, because while it was entertaining to watch, it was frustrating in practice.

Not only is Pikes Pizza a nice place to take a break from your scrapbooks, it's a nice, comfortable, homey place to feed your whole family without going broke. There's something on the menu for everyone, including hot and cold subs, lasagna, dessert pizzas and more. This is exactly the kind of locally owned business I love to support, and I'm sure anyone who eats there will feel the same way.

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