Editor's note: Introducing our new food writer, Patti Woods, who will serve up tart observations on the local food scene every week in these pages and throughout the week in her blog on our website. Comments or ideas? Send them to eatdrinkshopcook@gmail.com or jschwing@ctpost.com.

There are dining spots in nearly every town that, over time, become institutions. In Westport, there's Oscar's Delicatessen and Westport Pizzeria. In Fairfield, there was Al's Place and Mercurio's (both R.I.P.).

But one of Fairfield's long-standing favorites is still going strong, albeit changing with the times.

Mike's Pizza is the type of joint that memories are made of. I remember walking there for a "slice of cheese" and a grape soda after school when I went to Tomlinson Middle School. Later, it was the place to call in an order to-go; the greasy pizza had supernatural healing powers with hangovers. Today, whenever my brother flies in from Texas, Mike's is one of our first stops for a meatball grinder.

It used to be simple: a long, narrow restaurant with maybe eight or 10 tables. The menu was a yellowed plastic board above the cash register with removable letters; most of the time some letters were missing or falling off. You'd place your order, then hang out at one of the tables, which were draped in a plastic cliché red-and-white checked tablecloth, and wait. That is, if you could get a table. Because the place was so small, most of the business was takeout.

Things had to change.

Six years ago, Bobby Giagkos took over the helm of Mike's from his uncle, Eleftherios Jordanopoulos, the original "Mike" who opened the downtown restaurant in 1974.

"Lots of families would stay away because there was too much traffic," said Giagkos. "We had a very high volume of takeout because the store was tight, really tight."

So last January, when the nail salon next door vacated the premises overnight, Giagkos jumped on the chance to expand. After lots of red tape and building permits, the "new" Mike's Pizza was finally unveiled in September.

Visually, the place is totally different. Gone is the well-worn but much-loved atmosphere of the dingy pizza parlor. Now, with double the space, Mike's is much more a respectable restaurant. The plastic tablecloths are nowhere to be seen and swanky booths line the side walls. Two large TVs are always tuned to whatever game is on.

The menu has changed, too. "We added more dinners, more pastas," said Giagkos. Since Mike's now has a bigger kitchen, they're able to offer all sorts of non-pizza fare, from wings to sandwiches, although it almost seems a sacrilege to get anything other than the traditional meat-bread-sauce combination, whether it's a pizza, a grinder or a turnover.

"A turnover?" I asked.

"Our biggest seller is the chicken turnover," said Giagkos. "We've sold over a million."

How is it that I lived in Fairfield for nearly 30 years, ate there frequently, and never heard of a chicken turnover?

"It's like a calzone, without the ricotta," said Giagkos. "It has sauce, our own breaded chicken and a three-cheese mixture: mozzarella, part-skim and cheddar."

Being a vigilant food writer, I had to sample the chicken turnover. What can I say? It's like chicken parm in a pastry package. It's hard to go wrong with that combination of ingredients and Mike's definitely does it right.

Meanwhile, one of the newer additions to the menu, Penne a la Vodka is almost as popular as the chicken turnover.

"Mike's is a cornerstone," said Giagkos. "Kids come in after school. They end up here to get picked up. Parents feel safe picking their kids up here."

Of course, Fairfield University students make up about 30 percent of the clientele, according to Giagko's best guess. "I had three girls come back from Long Island last week," he said. "They sat here and ate, then ordered 18 turnovers to go."

It's actually not that unusual, he said. He has one customer who comes in and buys eight buffalo chicken grinders at a time, freezes them, wraps them and ships them to California. "That's where I got this hat," said Giagkos, showing off a baseball cap with the logo, "USC."

There's a part of me that's sad to see that the old Mike's is gone. There was something charming and hometowny about the place. I'll miss the age-worn, greased splattered sign. (Giagkos said it literally fell apart when it was taken down.)

But that same Mike's flavor is still there, and that's what it's all about in the end, isn't it?

Have a thought to share? Contact us at eatdrinkshopcook@gmail.com.

THE SCOOP / Mike's Pizza

"¢ Location: 1560 Post Road, Fairfield; 203-255-2292

"¢ Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-midnight; Friday & Saturday 11 a.m.-1 a.m.

"¢ Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, Debit Card, American Express

"¢ Cuisine: Italian, pizza

"¢ Alcohol: Beer and wine

"¢ Prices: Inexpensive

"¢ Atmosphere: Super casual, family-friendly

"¢ What to order: Pizza, chicken turnover, penne a la vodka

BITES

I couldn't believe it when I flipped the calendar page and saw that Hanukkah starts this week. The holiday season truly is here. If you're looking for a last-minute gift, check out Westport-based Challah Connection (www.challahconnection.com). They offer all sorts of gift baskets in a range of prices. How about a tin of kosher Black & White Cookies or a basket full of Hanukkah essentials like challah, babka and rugelach? And if you're a last-minute shopper, they offer local hand-delivery for $30, Monday though Friday and $45 on Sunday.

If the Internet isn't your thing, you can also go old-school and call them at 866-242-5524.

* * *

Fair warning: I love Trader Joe's. Some women love shoe shopping; I love food shopping and TJ's (with stores in both Westport and Fairfield) is one of my favorite places, so you'll probably be hearing about them from me often.

As if shopping there isn't enough temptation to stray off my standard grocery list, now the seasonal goodies are out. I had a difficult time trying to decide between pumpkin ice cream, chocolate-covered Joe Joe's (their "healthier" version of Oreos), or any number of chocolate yummy things. I finally decided on the Dark Chocolate Minty Mallows. The woman behind me in line was buying little bags of Dark Chocolate Mints, boxes of chocolate-drizzled snowflake cookies and a bag of salad mix. When she saw my marshmallows, she ran out of line to grab two boxes. "You've gotta grab it when you see it," she said.

The box suggests using these in S'mores (a little romantic dessert, for those of you in new-enough relationships that a fire in the fireplace means more than just trying to warm up the living room), or in hot chocolate. A word of caution, though: While festive and delicious, they get beat up in the box pretty badly, so these won't add a visually pleasing touch to your Christmas buffet. Better to just buy them for snacking.

* * *

I love a great bargain and, what's more, I love an interesting soup.

So I felt particularly lucky when I stumbled upon the eight or so pots of soup at Swanson's Fish Market on Black Rock Turnpike in Fairfield, recently reopened after a devastating fire. I stopped by one afternoon to get something easy for dinner (on this particular day, it was potato-crusted cod) and I noticed they were offering a butternut squash and crab bisque.

Hmmm. Maybe a small soup as a starter was in order. And then I saw the roasted corn and shrimp chowder. At $2 for a small cup, I couldn't resist and I'm pleased to report that both soups were delicious and full of seafood. Pair a cup of soup with some bread, and you've got yourself a cheap, tasty lunch.