Papa Petrone's Take and Bake, in a Woodbridge shopping center, looks like most other neighborhood pizza places. Except you can't eat the pizza there, or the thin pasta, ravioli, lasagna and desserts that rival those of any neighborhood pasta shop in Italy for selection and quality.
Although you are unlikely to find bake-at-home pizzas at most local shops, that's the only way customers can buy them from owner John Petrone.
For Petrone, it's simple: He does not want to run a restaurant. He owned and operated two popular bars, Beowulf in downtown Washington and Summerhouse in Rehoboth Beach. His interest in the take-it-home approach was inspired by two small chains in California in the early 1980s that have since merged to become Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza, now the nation's fifth-largest pizza operation.
Petrone borrowed the concept but made it his own. He worked out his own formulas for the pizza crust, for example, and from there he has expanded into a full line of pasta. In Springfield for 15 years, Petrone moved the business to Woodbridge in December to be closer to his home.
Petrone has developed his products with great attention to ease of preparation. Instructions are included with every purchase. He advises that if the disposable baking pan turns dark during cooking, the pan will be okay, but the oven temperature calibrations probably should be checked.
"Pizza is the No. 1 seller," Petrone said. Available in three sizes, the pizzas are hand-stretched, assembled with the purchaser's choices from among 25 toppings, placed on a baking pan and then shrink-wrapped for transport.
Baked at 425 degrees, the crust is light, chewy and almost buttery, while crisp on the bottom. My husband, the pizza fanatic, pronounced it perhaps the best pizza he had ever eaten.
Running a close second in sales is Petrone's unusual "scramble bread." It might best be likened to a pizza version of "monkey bread," which rose to popularity in the 1980s (it was a favorite of Nancy Reagan). Petrone said he came up with the idea in response to requests that he make stromboli. "People never bake stromboli correctly at home because they won't punch the holes in it," Petrone said. So "scramble bread" was born.
To prepare it, Petrone cuts pizza dough into bite-size pieces, tosses on the pizza toppings of your choice, gently mixes them all together, then heaps the conglomeration onto a disposable baking pan.
Taken home and baked in a 375-degree oven for 20 minutes or more, the scramble bread turns into a mound of fist-size portions of light-as-air bread held together by melted cheese and studded with the likes of pepperoni, roasted peppers, onions, fresh tomatoes and whatever else you selected. The taste is addictive -- you can't eat just one portion -- and unlike anything I've ever encountered before.
"If you have any leftovers, reheat them for 12 to 15 minutes, and they take on a completely different flavor," Petrone said.
Unlike the Papa Murphy's chain, Petrone also produces an ever-changing lineup of ravioli, with stuffings that include wild mushroom; artichoke, roasted garlic and fresh peas; spinach and cheese; and, soon, lobster. Petrone makes the thin-as-paper pasta, using egg whites instead of whole eggs, and prepares the stuffings, then has a friend stuff the ravioli.
"My pasta machine costs $10,000 and to be able to stuff the ravioli, I would have to bump up to a $20,000 machine," Petrone said, "and I don't want to."
The wild mushroom ravioli, with a stripe of wild mushroom in the pasta dough, is rich and light at the same time. Petrone, who gently warns customers away from a red sauce with this dish, recommends a simple sauce of butter with a little fresh sage. The result is stunningly good, on par with preparations in the best Italian restaurants.
The vegetable version is a pleasing combination of the slightly sharp taste of fresh artichoke, the earthy flavor of roasted garlic and the surprisingly bright note of fresh peas.
Petrone, who experiments during the slow early-afternoon hours to come up with his pairings, said he might work on as many as 10 versions before he finds exactly the right marriage of tastes and textures.
He then prepares the stuffings in about 50-pound batches. Once stuffed, the ravioli are frozen, again for ease of preparation. "If you give fresh ravioli to people, most will tear them apart before they can get them out of the boiling water," Petrone said. "Freezing them doesn't hurt them, and it makes cooking much easier."
In addition to a variety of pasta shapes, including angel hair, linguine, spirals and shells, Petrone produces lasagna. The red-sauce meat version is always available, though with a day's notice he can provide vegetable or white-sauce lasagna. "I don't even like my own lasagna," Petrone said, "but I wouldn't change it. People like it too much."
A combination of fresh pasta, five cheeses, ground beef, Italian sausage, spinach and homemade sauce, Petrone's lasagna is much lighter than many commercial versions. Take in your own pan, and Petrone will fill it with his lasagna.
Homemade sauces, prepared in five-gallon batches, are available for sale, as are meatballs he brings in from his native New York. Desserts, in an astonishing variety, are imported from Italy.
Papa Petrone's Take and Bake, the Glen Center, 4168 Merchant Plaza (Prince William Parkway at Route 641), Woodbridge, 703-878-4100. Ravioli from $10.40 a pound, pasta from $2.95 a pound, sauces from $4.10 a pound, lasagna $4.35 a pound and scramble bread $4.10 a pound. Hours: noon to 8 p.m. daily.
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