Like home hair-coloring kits and those services that deliver boxes of organic vegetables to your doorstep, take 'n' bake pizza is a laborious convenience, the utility of which is offset by unspoken challenges. Are you really going to foil-wrap your own highlights? asks Heather Locklear on the L'Oreal package. Are you really going to eat all this kale? asks the soggy box from Soulful Harvest Farms. With take 'n' bake pizza, the question is more complex: Will this premade-but-uncooked pizza really come out of my oven tasting like a gloriously low-priced alternative to Pagliacci/Piecora's/All-Purpose Pizza?
This question was put to the masses thanks to an entrepreneur named Terry Collins, who in 1995 merged two recent acquisitions—Papa Aldo's Pizza of Hillsboro, Oregon, and Murphy's Pizza of Petaluma, California—into Papa Murphy's International, a private corporation based in Vancouver, Washington. Papa Murphy's proceeded to franchise all over tarnation, establishing 1,000 stores in 31 states and Canada by 2008. Meanwhile in Seattle, a pair of take 'n' bake upstarts named Greg (yes, both of them) were plotting uncooked pizza's next great evolutionary leap: 'zaw (yes, that's how it's punctuated/capitalized/spelled), "artisan pizza in the raw." 'zaw has just opened its first three stores in Seattle's Capitol Hill, Ballard, and South Lake Union neighborhoods.
To salute Washington State's stature as a hotbed of take 'n' bake pizza visionaries, as well as to judge the distance between the accomplishments of the groundbreaking Papa Murphy's and the 21st-century 'zaw, I undertook a side-by-side comparison, with research assistance provided by Stranger restaurant reviewer Bethany Jean Clement.
Possessing the fluorescent-light-on-bright-plastic aesthetic popularized by Subway, Papa Murphy's is essentially a sneeze-guarded prep line leading to a cash register. Having called in my order in advance, I was free to bypass the prep line—where a young male employee was visibly counting out the advertised 80 slices of pepperoni layered on every Papa Murphy's Signature Pepperoni ($10.49 14-inch/$12.49 16-inch)—to pick up my Gourmet Vegetarian ($13.99/$15.99), featuring fresh spinach, zucchini, mushrooms, Roma tomatoes, onions, and artichoke hearts layered over a "creamy garlic sauce" and under an "herb and cheese blend." Placed on a cardboard disk and wrapped in clear plastic, it looked pale, fragile, and somewhat sad.
Meanwhile, my assistant saw to 'zaw, bypassing the snazzy Capitol Hill storefront to avail herself of 'zaw's delivery service, in which an uncooked pizza is brought to your door by a 'zaw disciple, on a bicycle, for two dollars extra. The delivery of an uncooked pizza is puzzling, offering all the convenience with none of the instant gratification. Might super-high people (one of delivery pizza's key customer bases) be tempted to skip the oven (which they probably forgot to turn on) and eat their 'zaw raw? To ward against such 'zawtastrophes, the delivery person went over the baking instructions with a slowness and specificity that seemed geared toward the super-stoned. ("He was nice," was the report, "which required commensurate tipping. For an uncooked pizza.") The pizza was the Roasted Veg Head (a small-looking 12-inch or so for $18), a "medley of oven-roasted organic veggies, including red bell peppers, zucchini, eggplant, red onion, and portobello 'shrooms topped with chopped garlic and basil, Parmesan and mozzarella." It looked pale, fragile, and very pretty, with its fresh-and-organic vegetables laid out in a pleasing radial fashion.
Both Papa Murphy's and 'zaw are meticulous about their instructions, walking the baker through every step of the cooking, cooling, and cutting. While Papa Murphy's communicates like the father everyone deserves (with simplicity, directness, and quiet affection), 'zaw spices things up with coy asides: "Preheat your oven to 425° F. (Now would be a good time to remove the plastic wrap)." You get the feeling that Papa Murphy's just wants to help you feed your family and/or stoned guests, while 'zaw wants to make politically-correct jokes and really get to know you. The 'zaw instructions' fine print: "Printed on 30% post- consumer waste, made with wind-generated electricity." Generation of wind is arguably something best left off a food label.
First up was Papa Murphy's—both places frown on cooking two pizzas at once—whose Gourmet Vegetarian emerged from the oven tasting like every slice of "veggie delight!" pizza I've ever had at an airport. The vegetables were plentiful, but the combination was a bit klutzy, with the marinated artichoke hearts and Roma tomatoes tilting the balance between juicy and wet toward the latter. My assistant was kinder toward Papa Murphy's, taken by surprise by the admirably fresh and flavorful vegetables. Bothering us both: the bright yellow cheese squiggles mixed among the mozzarella. Nonplussing us both: the "creamy garlic sauce," which supplanted tomato sauce and which neither of us could figure out until I found an explanation on the website.
Speaking of websites, 'zaw's is rich with ambition, laying out the 'zaw philosophy and identifying its pizzas as "circles of nurturing, nourishing the tummy as well as the soul." Our post-baking circle of nurturing proved 'zaw's superiority with veggies: The peppers and zucchini grew tender while remaining firm and rubbed up against slices of eggplant and portobello mushrooms prepped to sidestep too-wetness. The Parmesan/mozzarella cheese blend struck my assistant as "unremarkable—which is good," but she took exception to 'zaw's organic ruby red tomato sauce: "Too sweet, with the dash of spicy heat only complicating matters. It's trying too hard."
But the crust is any pizza's ultimate test—one that is particularly acute for take 'n' bake pizzas, cruelly denied the benefit of professional pizza ovens. In our experiment, both Papa Murphy's and 'zaw's crusts turned out more serviceable than delicious. In the case of 'zaw's, the bottom failed to reach brownness or crispiness, achieving only a firm gumminess and raising unpleasant questions. Was the crappy Magic Chef electric range to blame? Were we too stupid to bake take 'n' bake pizza? Why wasn't it orders of magnitude better than a frozen pizza (especially at 'zaw's price point)? Pervasive feelings of guilt led us to one conclusion: Regular delivery pizza means never having to feel like it's your fault.
This article has been amended: The 'zaw test-pizza crust was not gluten-free as originally reported. While riddled with gluten, it was still more serviceable than delicious.