Bryan Richardson
Stark Street Pizza Company
9234 SE Stark
255-2364

Growing up outside Chicago, I spent most of the time I wasn't in school tagging along with my parents to a pizza joint or a bowling alley or a bowling alley that served pizza. Stark Street Pizza Company is reminiscent of those old Highland Park, or Highwood, or Glenview pizza places, with its rows of black vinyl booths, its dim lighting, and its loud red-patterned casino carpet. Like the Chicago parlors, Stark Street has video games, a party room for community softball teams, and a 50" TV for watching sports while you eat and drink 25-ounce mugs of beer.

When you come to the Stark Street Pizza Company, you come to get full and relax. Kids and parents mingle together easily, employees treat you like friends, and everyone feels free to get up and wander around, rather than stay obediently in their seats. Spend a few minutes admiring the Stark Street's enormous, glass-encased, taxidermied bear; play a round of whatever that handgun video game is; spend a minute warming up by the blazing fireplace--just don't stay away from your table too long, because Stark Street makes the pizza fast.

Unlike Chicago's signature deep-dish pizza that takes over an hour to cook, Stark Street's specialty is a crisp, thin, quickly baked crust. If you order a pizza to go, they make it in 12 minutes, and if you're in house, you'll hardly have sipped your beer and taken a bite of your salad before they're calling your number.

Favorites at Stark Street include the pepperoni pizza, its cornmeal-dusted crust piled with hundreds of thin, meaty circles. The Aloha Days pizza (Canadian bacon and pineapple) is great, and the shrimp, smoked oyster, or anchovy topped pizzas are worth trying if you're brave. A word of advice, though: one or two toppings is enough (especially if you order pepperoni), because the cooks are generous with the ingredients and you don't want that crisp, crunchy crust to buckle under the pressure. I recently ordered an individual onion and tomato pizza, and with the amount of chopped onions I scraped off I could've topped 15 burgers.

Besides tasty pizza, Stark Street distinguishes itself with mouth-watering hot wings dubbed "Wings of Fire" and a salad bar the size of a Vegas buffet. They offer three kinds of lettuce, two kinds of cheese, cubed meats, beans, baby corn, beets, artichoke hearts, macaroni salad, tortellini salad, Jello salad, Bacos, crackers, etc. and, as a charming detail, they even give you a chilled plate.

Stark Street Pizza Co. offers that warm family vibe I often forget exists in restaurants. The guys behind the counter crack jokes, the employees make a point of handing you your pizza rather than leaving it on the counter, and unlike Dominos, you don't have to listen to a five-minute recording when you call them on the phone.