Port of Piraeus

1155 21st St. NW

833-3338

Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Prices: Breakfast sandwiches, $2 to $3.30; lunch specials about $5.50; sandwiches, $2.43 to $3.99; desserts, $1.35 to $1.99.

Credit Cards: None.

No smoking.

Port of Piraeus had barely hung out its shingle on bustling 21st Street near M Street NW two months ago when the lines began to form.

The spacious Greek-eclectic delicatessen attracts so many standing-room-only crowds at high noon that the crowds themselves could become its downfall. With all the time we spent waiting in line for a "Spartan" (a huge torpedo-shaped affair involving thin Armenian bread wrapped around roast beef, herb cheese, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and feta), we couldn't help wondering whether Piraeus hasn't bitten off more than it can chew.

As anxious customers gather four deep at Piraeus's counters, a battalion of employees madly assembles the deli's specialty concoctions, running them in and out of various toasters and ovens, topping them with one or another "special sauce" before cutting, wrapping and handing them over. Then hungry customers must line up again at the cash register before they can race back to the office and finally eat.

The culprit appears to be good intentions. Port of Piraeus wants to deliver more than an average deli sandwich, and in so doing has dreamed up some of the most labor-intensive creations since Italians (or was it Philadelphians?) first thought to layer salami, ham, cheese, mortadella, onions, olive oil, vinegar and hot peppers on a hoagie roll.

Piraeus has its own verion of the classic: The "Metro" is one of the least messy and most successful sandwiches on the menu. The "Cubano," a compact, authentically Cuban toasted sandwich with pork, ham, cheese and thinly sliced pickle, is similarly easy to sink into.

Then there is the ill-conceived "Dinghy." Choose ham, roast beef or pepperoni. Place on pita bread, cover with provolone cheese, tomatoes, onions, and hot or sweet peppers. Heat until the cheese gets runny. Smother with a mayonnaise sauce and package quickly.

It does sound interesting, but the one time we braved this gooey selection we ended up with more on our laps than in our stomachs.

Similarly ambitious is the "Old English": two scoops of rich chicken salad with lots of white meat atop a sliced and toasted English muffin with a generous topping of cheddar cheese. Once out of the microwave, it is bubbling attractively, but trundled back to your office in a plastic bubble, the crisp muffin has turned to sponge.

With all the standard deli sandwiches available at Piraeus, you may wonder why so many people line up for the "Texas Pete's Barbecue" (lean sliced beef in a good barbecue sauce on a roll with coleslaw and potato chips), the "K Streeter" (ham, Swiss cheese, pickle slices, mayo, mustard and potato chips on a hoagie roll), not to mention the ironically named Spartan.

The answer: Plain sandwiches are generally $3.30. Fancy sandwiches cost a mere $3.99. And that's about 50 cents cheaper than the price for sandwiches in most other places in the neighborhood.

This may account in part for Piraeus's success. Another strong point is surroundings. The deli is large and airy, with expanses of bright white and blue tile, rustic baskets of fresh fruit, shelves of impulse items such as popcorn and chips, and a refrigerator bank of bottled juices and soft drinks. There are also tables and a small counter.

A long sparkling pastry case offers brownies, carrot cake, apple pie and other treats. After weeks of resisting, curiosity overcame us and we finally ordered the "Chocolate Volcano." At $1.99 per thin, intense slice, it turns out to be a thinly veiled excuse to eat chocolate frosting with a bit of cake.

The Port of Piraeus is a spinoff of a smaller deli, now entering its 20th year, inside the lobby of an office building at 1801 K St. NW. Opening bright and early at 7:30 a.m., both places offer doughnuts, Danish, bagels, fruit and muffins. At the new place, there are also some ambitious breakfast sandwiches, including the "Miami Hammy" -- ham, cream cheese and sweet pepper strips on a toasted bagel ($2).

Later in the day, the offerings include dozens of preassembled Greek salads -- heaping bowls of lettuce, sliced cucumber, tomato and onion topped with crumbled feta cheese, peppers and vinegary dressing ($3.99).

Also available is Greek spinach pie ($2.99 a slice) and a delicious small pizza made with pita bread and lots of cheese, pepperoni and sauteed sweet peppers. There are daily soup specials and one daily special entree priced at $4.99 to $5.69.