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Thursday, Sept. 18, 2003 02:20 pm

Best kept secret

Dean Brogden and Marsha Smole-Christy

Two Olives and a Pepper, a restaurant owned by Marsha Smole-Christy and her fiance Dean Brogdon, has more than 50 items on its Italian-inspired menu. Besides sandwiches, soups, and salads, an array of homemade creations has attracted a loyal following since the place opened a year ago.

A new sandwich shop is usually not big news, but Two Olives and a Pepper aims to be more than just a deli. That explains why the restaurant has been voted as Springfield's "best kept secret" by Illinois Times readers.

Smole-Christy says she knew she wanted to use olives in the name, and after two months of batting around ideas Brogdon suggested simply tagging on the word pepper.

"We wanted a unique name," she says. "One day, I said, 'How about stuffed olives.' Dean said, 'Why not add a pepper to it.' That's why we top all of our sandwiches with two olives and a pepper."

A mother of four, Smole-Christy is a Springfield native who started her career in retail and lived in Chicago for 17 years. The former general manager of O'Charley's restaurant says she "tired of working for corporations" and wanted to open her own eatery. "It's more personable."

When a space in the Vinegar Hill Mall became available, "we decided to take the plunge." Her mother, Sharon Schroeder, painted murals of Italy on the walls. Formerly home to Higher Ground Cafe and Java Dog, the place features a brick wall and a soaring white ceiling dotted with burlap coffee sacks, green plants, and hanging antique stained glass. A television and a karaoke machine sit in a corner. A couch, a coffee table, and chairs provide a comfortable setting to wait for an order.

Schroeder also helps out in the kitchen. Momma Sharon's antipasto salad is made with salami, pepperoni, and veggies tossed with the house dressing on a bed of greens. But she's not the only family member who gets billing on the menu. Most of the items are named after family and friends, such as Aunt Gina's Hot Turkey Muffaletta and Uncle Leo's Salami Not Pastrami. Most of the sandwich names are also humorous, like Korn's Little Pork Belly, Larry's More Than a Mouthful, and Donnie's Belly Stuffer, a concoction of corned beef, pastrami, bacon, and Swiss cheese, topped with creamy cole slaw and spicy brown mustard, served on black Bavarian bread.

"We have a phenomenal lunch business," says Smole-Christy, who draws on family recipes. "I do all the cooking." She starts each day at 6:30 a.m. making items like cheese tortellini, Italian wedding soup, or quiche with spinach and sun-dried tomatoes.

Antipasti items include a spinach and carciofi dip, brushchetta, and a quesadilla made with garlic herb tortillas, spinach, artichokes, red onion, bacon, and three cheeses. Baked French onion soup is prepared daily, as well as a soup of the day. Salads include Cristie's Mandarin Coconut, Carin's Craisin, and a hot spinach salad. Marsha's Favorite is a mix of greens, red onions, bacon, and egg, topped with homemade croutons and gorgonzola.

Before opening the restaurant, Smole-Christy looked at the menus of other local restaurants to see what was missing. "We wanted to offer a variety of things others didn't have," she says. Paninis--the popular Italian sandwich pressed in a hot iron--are a mainstay. The sandwich, made with European-style bread, is packed with meat and cheese and other condiments.

Specialty sandwiches and paninis include Italian beef and sausage, meatballs, hot turkey, salami, prosciutto, and pepperoni. Deli sandwiches include chicken salad, seafood salad, and a club. If all these items aren't to your liking, you can create your own sandwich, with a variety of meats, cheeses, and breads.

Smole-Christy is also trying to promote the business as a nightspot, extending its hours to 1 a.m. (the kitchen closes at 9 p.m.) with karaoke on Saturday nights.

Two Olives and a Pepper is located in the Vinegar Hill Mall, 107 W. Cook Street (phone, 241-1027; fax, 241-1031). Hours are 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturdays. Catering and private rooms are available for parties and meetings. The restaurant features a full bar and daily pasta specials. Orders are delivered in the downtown area with a $10 minimum purchase.

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