About two months ago, Pietro Firippis decided he could no longer ignore the telephone calls from his restaurant's customers who wanted home delivery.

So for the last six weeks, Firippis has experimented with delivering every- xi thing on the menu of Cugini's, his small Italian restaurant and pizzeria on upper Connecticut Avenue.

Firippis hasn't even started advertising yet, and already his small crew each night is making 15 to 20 deliveries of menu items that include lasagna, spaghetti, veal Parmesan, pizza and antipasto.

"I'm the manager, the owner and the cook," said Firippis. "It's difficult because on rainy nights the telephone doesn't stop ringing. You have to be well organized and well prepared... . We're not Domino's {Pizza}, but we're doing our best."

Firippis has joined the legions of restaurateurs who worry about having the necessary kitchen staff, drivers, cars, advertising budget and menu that make for a successful home delivery business -- currently the hottest trend in the restaurant industry.

Spurred by consumers obsessed with convenience, the home delivery market grew 40 percent last year -- to a $3.5 billion business nationally. Yuppies tired of eating out prefer sitting at home with their VCRs after a hard day at work, a phenomenon known as "cocooning." And restaurants from Kentucky Fried Chicken to mom-and-pop rib joints are becoming part of what was once viewed as a war involving only pizza franchisers.

The Washington area, with its high median annual income and the highest percentage of working women in the country, is considered a near-perfect market for the home delivery of restaurant food.

It wasn't always so. When Frank Meeks opened his first Domino's pizza delivery and carry-out store in Alexandria, many advised him that the sophisticated lawyers, politicians and lobbyists in the area would not be a good customer base. Meeks found out differently. Last year, his 15 Domino's franchises in Northern Virginia and the District had sales of more than $12 million.

Different Home Delivery Now, along with pizza competitors with names like Marino's, Trio's, Rocco's, Village Inn and PDQ Pizza, restaurants with different types of food are offering home delivery. "We think pizza is just the tip of the iceberg," said William C. Hale of the Hale Group, a consulting firm specializing in chain restaurant operations. "Pizza will continue to grow, but we'll also see Oriental, chicken and ribs."

"It's a booming trend that will expand well beyond just the pizza business," said Dorothy Dee, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association. "It has had a huge impact on the restaurant industry."

"People build beautiful kitchens, but they don't want to cook anymore," said Emanuel Goldman, a financial analyst with Montgomery Securities who tracks the restaurant industry. "It's all part of the age of self-indulgence. Someone brings you dinner. Isn't that nice?"

While it may be the wave of the future, it's also a continuation of the last 20 years of growth in the fast-food and convenience-food markets, said Joseph Doyle, a market analyst with Smith Barney. Supermarkets have become more attuned to consumers' needs for quick, convenient foods, such as precooked foods and deli-style prepared foods, and restaurants have to compete for those food dollars with their own versions of quick and convenient.

For Denise Vazquez, marketing director for the five Charlie Chiang's Chinese restaurants in the Washington area, home delivery was a marketing experiment that started with the Connecticut Avenue restaurant in February and moved to its Shirlington location just weeks ago.

"It either comes from lazy Americans or people who want something that's free," said Vazquez, who pointed out that much of the delivery business for the restaurant comes from people who live in apartment buildings that are literally across the street, but who don't want to go out.

And while pizza is considered a relatively inexpensive meal, parents with teen-aged children point out that filling them up -- even with pizza -- isn't cheap. At Domino's, for example, two large (16-inch) pizzas with two toppings each cost $22. Still, one parent who used to take the kids out to a pizza restaurant for a treat said, "Now, I come home from work tired and pick up the phone."

Washington customers don't seem deterred by the price of even more costly foods, however.

"People are paying the price" of Chiang's moderately expensive food, said Vazquez. The minimum order is $10 for most restaurants that deliver, and at Chiang's, the average delivery check has been about $23, she said.

For the Shirlington Chiang's, where about 80 percent of the lunch deliveries are to the Pentagon, checks for groups sometimes are more than $100, Vazquez said. Chiang's is just one of a number of Chinese restaurants in the Washington area that now offers home delivery.

Delivery customers of H.I. Ribster's in Annandale can get anything from steaks to baby-back ribs to chicken delivered, according to chef Kevin Shannon. His average delivery order totals $30. However, Shannon points out that he discourages customers from ordering certain fried foods that don't hold up well in transit.

Not all kinds of food travel well enough to be home delivered. Pizza, Chinese food, chicken and ribs seem to be candidates that have tested best.

Hamburgers have been tried, but not successfully. They don't reheat well, and french fries and other accompaniments are even worse, say industry officials. However, no one doubts that someone eventually will come up with a home-delivery system for America's favorite food.

Not that home delivery is without problems. Even as restaurant owners sing the praises of the new customers that home delivery brings, they bemoan the need for additional staff, drivers with good driving records and appropriate containers to keep the food hot.

Neighborhood groups have complained about the driving habits of delivery persons hurrying through residential streets.

Still, every day seems to bring another flyer in the mail of the newest home delivery service.

Pizza Wars In Washington, as in the rest of the country, home delivery of pizza has become the main arena for deciding who the Goliath of the delivery business will be. Since 1983, home delivery of pizza has been explosive, growing at a rate of about 125 percent annually, according to Steven S. Reinemund, president and chief executive officer of Pizza Hut Inc. Now, Pizza Hut is entering the already heated market for home delivery in Washington, where hardly a yuppie neighborhood exists that on a summer evening doesn't have cars with various pizza signs zooming down its streets. Among the larger pizza deliverers in the area are:

1 Domino's. Nationally, "Domino's is the market right now," said financial analyst Goldman. The privately owned Domino's, which has been perfecting its delivery system since 1965, had sales of about $1.3 billion last year, according to analysts, and every other delivery system looks to Domino's as the leader.

Meeks owns more Domino's locations than any other franchiser in the system and said he plans to blanket Montgomery County with the stores by the end of the year. He has become well-known in the Washington business community for the pep rally atmosphere of his stores and promises that his pizzas will be delivered in 23 minutes or will be free.

Meeks said he is not concerned about Pizza Hut as a competitor. "Competition can only help draw more attention to pizza delivery," he said at a recent rally for employes. However, competitors point out that Meeks lowered his time limit from 30 to 23 minutes for delivery only after Pizza Hut moved into the area.

As for the small, neighborhood pizza restaurants that many have said will be hurt by operations like Domino's, "they will survive," Meeks said. "Their mistake is trying to deliver."

Brad Biggers, the Domino's franchisee in Fairfax County, has five Domino's open in the county now and has plans to open two more. At the Tyson's Corner and Reston Domino's, the average lunch-hour rush produces orders for 150 pizzas an hour, according to Michael Meldon, assistant manager of Domino's at Tysons. During rush periods, between 25 and 30 delivery cars are being dispatched from each store "like a little army of ants," Meldon said. Armand's. The District deep-dish pizza restaurant that started home delivery about 2 1/2 years ago has six stores and seven under construction. Its distinctive red, green and yellow trucks deliver in the District and in Rockville.

"The last time I told somebody how good business was, Domino's moved into the neighborhood," said Lew Newmyer, the owner of Armand's, who said his business grew about 11 percent in the last year. Newmyer said he's not "too worried" about the growing competition for pizza delivery. Many of the pizza deliverers have the same type of thin-crust pizza and put the emphasis on how fast they deliver, Newmyer said. "We put the emphasis on how good our pizza is."

Maggie's. Another District pizzeria that is branching out, Maggie's has two locations now and will open eight more over the next two years, according to owner Christopher Kefalas. "When you have a restaurant with 200 seats, that's your limit," said Kefalas. "With home delivery there are hundreds of thousands of possible customers -- people who don't have time to go out or are too tired to go out." Pizza Hut. PepsiCo Inc.-owned Pizza Hut is the newest force in the pizza delivery business in the area. Although the company won't confirm the number, industry sources said the chain plans to open 30 new units in the area. Its three newest units, in Alexandria and Arlington, are for delivery and take-out only to save money by allowing the company to use smaller parcels of real estate than needed for sit-down restaurants. Nationwide, the chain will have about 1,000 delivery units by the end of the year, according to company officials.

Pizza Hut, like others who have gotten into the home delivery business, has found that it's not all orders and money flowing in with ease.

"It's a very difficult business to operate, much more difficult than we envisioned," said Allan Huston, a Pizza Hut senior vice president. "But now we know what it takes to operate successfully."

Anyone who's ever seen the number of people staffing a Domino's knows it's a very labor-intensive business. Staff, particularly drivers, is expensive, with many pizza chains and others paying $10 to $12 an hour plus tips. In Northern Virginia, the competition for drivers has been so stiff that some restaurants lure drivers away from competitors by putting leaflets on delivery cars promising better pay or benefits.

While some of the chain operations have at least a few company-owned trucks that carry up to 40 pizzas and keep them hot, most delivery persons use their own cars. They slap a sign on top and off they go -- until they have an accident.

Both Pizza Hut and Domino's have seen their insurance costs skyrocket, in spite of safe driving programs and the fact that they check the driving and insurance records of employes. Smaller operations simply require that drivers have their own insurance -- a situation that observers call risky, at best.

Complaints About Drivers In addition, complaints about drivers' methods are beginning to be heard. Members of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission from the Forest Hills area of the District recently sent restaurant managers a letter noting that: "While most of us appreciate a good pizza, we are seriously concerned about the 'race to deliver,' often in disregard for traffic regulations and the safety of our neighborhoods."

D.C. Councilman Jim Nathanson, who represents the Forest Hills area, said the complaint was the first he'd heard concerning problems caused by delivery people. "Laws are in place to control it," Natanson said. "Stricter enforcement may be the answer."

And if there are problems for the big chains, like Pizza Hut, many small pizza restaurants may soon be in real trouble, said industry officials. "You can't afford not to be in home delivery if you sell pizza," said consultant Hale. Because customers know the big chains deliver, the mom-and-pop pizza stores start to lose market share, so they have few options but to deliver.

Yet, at the same time, they don't have the money to advertise and hire drivers that delivery requires, Hale said.

"Oh, it's going to be tough for them (small restaurants)," said Goldman. "It's not yet clear that it's economically viable for them."

Shakey's Pizza, a national pizza chain headquartered in Texas, tried home delivery for a while, but found the competition too tough. Mike Magill, manager of the Annandale Shakey's, said that after trying delivery for about a year, his store stopped because of high insurance costs and operational problems.

"There was a lot of demand for it," said Magill. "But Domino's is a force to be reckoned with. We still get a lot of calls about delivery, but try to turn them into carry-out customers."

Determining the right size of the area to be covered is a major concern for restaurants, particularly with the competition to deliver quickly.

Although many industry analysts said the customer is much more concerned that the food be delivered in the amount of time promised -- whether it's 30 minutes, 40 minutes or more -- rather than that it be delivered quickly.

In addition, there has been tremendous discounting to get home delivery going -- particularly in the pizza market. Pizza Hut officials admit that even the most loyal Pizza Hut customers have been lured away by Domino's discounts.

"The price competition in delivery is intense," Reinemund told a gathering of financial analysts recently. "It's been more expensive than we expected, but we're as committed as ever to the delivery business... . We're going to take Domino's head-on."

One reason the big chains are so committed to the delivery concept, said industry analysts, is that the delivery-only units are so much cheaper to build than a sit-down restaurant.

A delivery-only pizza unit costs about $150,000 to $180,000, according to the Hale Group, compared with $500,000 for a regular pizza restaurant and nearly $1 million for a hamburger fast-food operation.

So there seems to be no escape from the pizza deliverers -- even in hotels. Giant Marriott Corp. now promises quick-delivered pizza through room service in its hotels after a food and beverage manager won a bet with the general manager that Domino's could deliver pizzas faster than room service.

And several large national chains may be about to offer consumers more choices of delivered items. Kentucky Fried Chicken is testing a home-delivery concept in Louisville and Kansas City for both fried and roasted chicken. Tony Roma's, a 79-restaurant chain with locations mostly in Florida, Southern California and New York City, now delivers ribs and barbecued chicken. And a number of Chinese restaurants around the country are beginning delivery services.

So, until the consumer gets tired of eating in, home delivery seems here to stay. And restaurateurs like Firippis may find themselves weathering one more stormy trend. Firippis recalls the Friday night whenone of the restaurant's cars got stuck during a Washington rainstorm.

"There were three or four people we had to call to say we couldn't deliver to them," he said. "We do our best." Staff writer Diane Saenz also contributed to this report.