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Arena Bar & Grill
*** 1/2
Out of a possible five

Wings ’n’ pizza pull in crowd

Great chicken wings and great pizza; that was all I needed to hear to be persuaded to check out Arena Bar & Grill in Northbrook Village on Dupont Road.

The wings hype made sense considering that Pauly Sokolik is running the kitchen at Arena. A wing guru of sorts in the Summit City, Sokolik mastered his craft at places like Speedway Café and Checkerz and even owned his own wing joint for a while.

And the wings at his new home did his reputation proud. Fried until crisp, coated in sauce and then grilled a bit to give them a little char, they were great. I had mine double-dipped, which includes a second bath in sauce after the grill, and loved them all.

The hot had just the right level of heat, and the sweet heat was addictively good with just a little sugar to go with the spice.

Also on special one night were Buffalo Chicken Thigh Sticks, which were skewers of butterflied, fatty, delicious thighs fried, sauced and grilled just like the wings. The waitress said they were amazing when I asked about them, and she was right. They are available at least five days each week, Sokolik said, and are always featured on Thursday.

The only negative about any of the wings was that Arena was out of Asian Plum sauce, which I loved when they offered it at Checkerz. This sweet, dark, rich sauce with an Asian spin is fantastic, and I would get it every time I visited; well, if they had it.

The pizza also easily served as an appetizer during a Wednesday “pizza night” visit to the bar when large pies are only $10. And both of the pizzas I tried lived up to the hype.

The thin, super crispy crust and sweet sauce flavored with garlic, oregano and Parmesan cheese gave the pizza the perfect good-old-bar-pizza flavor. The Meat-eater’s was loaded with big pieces of diced ham, diced pepperoni, Italian sausage and bacon, and the supreme also had sausage and pepperoni, along with green peppers, black olives and mushrooms.

This wasn’t just a decent pizza at a bar, this is the kind of pizza you will make a special trip to the bar to carry out.

Another item worth making the trip for was Arena Bar & Grill’s pork tenderloin sandwich. Prepared in house with a cubing machine that Sokolik said was older than he was, the pork loin was coated with Panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried until crisp. The meat was tender and quite juicy, and it was a very good version of this Hoosier staple.

I was more surprised at how good the rib-eye sandwich was. This 6-ounce slice of tender, marinated beef had a good amount of fat, making it tender and succulent. It had a nice char-grilled flavor and was great when topped with grilled onions and peppers. I paid a bit extra to add some buttery mushrooms to mine and would advise you to do the same. The combination made it like a great cheesesteak minus the cheese and a much better piece of steak.

The cheese was not at all missing from Arena’s Black-N-Blue Burger, and there was more than bleu. The patty was seared (i.e., blackened) nicely and had the right blend of Cajun seasonings, and the crumble bleu was plentiful. That pungent bleu cheese was tempered with a blend of provolone and mozzarella, which made the sandwich more chewy and creamy.

All of the items I had at Arena were enjoyable, and there was nothing I could classify as bad.

The worst item was only the worst because it wasn’t as impressive as the others – the Italian grinder.

Ham, salami, sausage, green peppers, the mozzarella-provolone blend and mayonnaise were the heart of this hot sandwich, which came on a toasty hoagie roll. I had mine deluxe with lettuce, onion, tomato and pickle. The meat got a little brown around the edges, the cheese was plentiful and it was just a solid sandwich.

My visits to Arena Bar & Grill were simply solid all around.

It is pretty typical in terms of design with a bevy of beer and sports paraphernalia, pool tables and the like. The main bar sits in the back above the main floor, which had high tables surrounded by barstools.

Service was cordial and apologetic whenever there was even a minor delay or miscue. The place was packed – and noisy – during both visits and, even with the servers really busy, there were very few issues. And it is easy to see why the place was packed. With a variety of daily drink specials in addition to food specials, it caters to a crowd.

And the crowds I saw wanted pizza and chicken wings.

Restaurant: Arena Bar & Grill

Address: 1657 Dupont Road

Phone: 489-0840

Hours: 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: No

Menu: Wings ($8.50 for 12), tenderloin ($6.50), Black-N-Blue Burger ($5.95), rib-eye sandwich ($7.95), Italian grinder ($7.95), pizzas ($11.95 for 12-inch; $14.95 for 16-inch)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.