The word is out: The great American love affair isn't with cars or baseball.

It's with pizza.

The evidence is no farther away than your nearest pizza joint. Just for starters, consider the case of Domino's. The world's largest pizza delivery service, which enjoys representation in every state, recently surpassed the 4,250-outlet mark. Currently, even that bastion of burgers, McDonald's, is test-marketing individual cheese and sausage pizzas in Charleston, S.C., and Salt Lake City.

At stake is a lot of dough; according to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, Americans spent more than $20 billion in pizza restaurants last year. That breaks down to about 100 million slices a month, reckons Pizza Hut, the country's largest pizza restaurant chain.

On the home front, pizza-loving Washingtonians have a range of choices from the simple to the sublime. Windows restaurant, which raised our pizza consciousness a few years back with such haute toppings as smoked duck and smoked salmon, now serves "regional pizzas" in addition to its original rustic California-style crusts. The crust seasonings vary from chili and paprika for the Cajun pizza to saffron for the Mediterranean crust, and spinach for the "L.A. wheel," according to Ann Poznak of the restaurant's catering division.

Mini pizzas are also being served, generally but not exclusively, as appetizers by such long-established caterers as Braun's and Ridgewell's, at functions that range from embassy receptions and black-tie balls to football parties, report those firms. "Everybody loves pizza," acknowledges a spokeswoman for Design Cuisine, which offers pizzas with scallops and snow peas, as well as lamb, leek and fresh rosemary.

That said, pizza can be sophisticated without being expensive, as anyone who's sampled C.F. Folks' cornmeal pizza with grilled chicken might attest. The downtown eatery's Tuesday special, accompanied by sides of Mexican rice and refried beans, is a bargain at $5.95.

Therein lies the pizza's mass appeal. It can be dressed up or down. It's easy to serve and to eat -- you can slice a whole pie to feed a crowd, and even plates are optional provided the pizza is sturdy enough. What's more, it suits any meal of the day (ever tried fruit pizza for breakfast or brunch?).

Pizza's attraction is by no means limited to the American palate. Within recent years, Domino's has expanded its international domain to include 177 branches in such far-flung ports as Honduras, West Germany and Hong Kong. And when Pizza Hut recently offered to deliver complimentary pizzas to about 20 embassies in Washington in celebration of National Pizza Week, which kicks off today, more than half of them responded with orders running the gamut from plain cheese to the all-inclusive "supreme." Pizza Hut didn't even blink when the Australian contingent requested at least one pie topped with pineapple. Which just goes to show that with pizza, practically anything goes.

Today's Express Lane recipe, for pizza with a Middle Eastern accent, illustrates the point:

Express Lane list: pita or afghan bread, tomatoes, mozzarella, feta, onion, pickled or fresh bell peppers, salami


(1 to 2 servings)

The ingredients and amounts used in this recipe are open to experimentation; use the following as a guideline to create a pizza to your taste.

1 pita round or afghan bread, sliced

1/4 cup tomatoes, chopped

1/4 cup grated mozzarella

1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese

3 tablespoons minced onion

3 tablespoons pickled or fresh red and green bell peppers, diced

Salami slices to taste (optional)

Freshly ground black pepper

Split the pita or afghan bread in half. Top each slice with a mixture of the tomatoes, cheese, onion, peppers and salami slices, if desired. Place bread rounds under a preheated broiler and bake about 2 minutes, or until cheese has melted.

Remove from oven, season with freshly ground black pepper and serve immediately.