It can be easy to be cynical about the opening of yet another coffee bar cum sandwich shop, but Star Pizza Expresso, while not conspicuously unique, is a solid comer in this genre of casual eateries. Of course, Star Pizza Expresso is probably the only restaurant of its type with the word "pizza" in its name E when there's not a sliver of pizza anywhere on the menu. It's a stroke of marketing smarts, owner Hank Zwirek decided to keep the locally famous Star Pizza name for his new venture when what he was really after was a decent sandwich. (The connection's not hard to make, really; Zwirek's pizzeria sits barely a block away.)
Zwirek loves a good sandwich. And following the time-honored advice that if you want something done right, do it yourself, he decided that his longtime desire to expand should go in the direction of a lunch spot featuring made-from-scratch preparation. The results? A sensibly restricted menu in an easy-to-access storefront that's been spiffed up in the currently hot New York loft mode. And homey touches: pub tables, a basketful of magazines to keep the solo diner company, a couple of seductively decadent desserts, the same three breads -- European white, sourdough wheat and pumpernickel rye -- daily from Empire Baking Company.
The key here is focus. Wisely, Star Pizza Expresso isn't trying to be all things to all people. Zwirek has chosen to perfect a few food items and a good cup of coffee (or espresso, or latte, or cappuccino). He's succeeded in developing a couple of sandwiches that are certainly worth stopping in for. The Greek sandwich is especially tasty. On the European white bread, the nutty pesto, fresh basil, roasted eggplant and salty-sharp feta cheese brought to mind sun-drenched visions of the Mediterranean. It's unlikely I'd get a nouveau chic sandwich like this if I were actually in Greece, but who cares? The herb roasted turkey, like the roast beef and ham sandwiches, comes with a choice of fancy mixed greens (a.k.a. lettuce), tomatoes, onions, mustard and mayo. My companion's creation suited the moist, flavorful bird exactly: Dijon mustard, lettuce, tomatoes and thin slivers of red onion, all piled Dagwood-style on a couple of slabs of the sourdough wheat bread.
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Soups and salads are created daily. On one visit, the cheese tortellini soup sounded interesting but tasted less so; it needed work. The tortellini had a fresh-out-of-the-freezer taste and floated gloomily with various vegetables in a watery broth. It was less a soup than a hodgepodge of ingredients thrown together in the same pot.
Still, getting a soup just right is tricky. I'm willing to give Star Pizza Expresso time to work out the kinks. If nothing else, testing the soups will give me an excuse to go back for a sandwich. -- Kelley Blewster
Star Pizza Expresso, 3800 South Shepherd, 523-0800.
Star Pizza Expresso: Greek sandwich, $3.75; herb roasted turkey sandwich, $4.