Does anybody get pizza delivered just because they like the way it tastes?

I think we do it to feed our culture of complaint. It's soggy, it's cold, it tastes like cardboard, it costs too much, it's half an hour late.

Well, no kidding. When we choose delivery instead of pizza that's straight out of the oven, it's like we're punishing ourselves for something. 'Here's your circle of self-loathing, sir. That'll be $18.50.'

Nobody expects a steakhouse or a burger joint or a Tex-Mex place to deliver, even though those foods might suffer less in crosstown traffic than a pizza does. Pizza's a delicate thing. Getting it right is a kind of miracle even under the best of circumstances. Yet somehow we're OK with having somebody stuff it in a box, cram that box in a bag, then take it on a joy ride to our front door.

The pizza phones will light up next week, electrified by the finales of 'Lost,' 'American Idol' and 'Dancing with the Stars' (admit it - you've watched), not to mention the NBA playoffs.

To help keep you fed while you're camped out in front of the flat-screen, I borrowed an apartment in the 78701 ZIP code and ordered pizza from four national chains and five local pizzerias this month. I also worked a shift at Pizza Nizza (story here.)

You might not see your favorites here. Maybe they don't deliver to Central Austin. Maybe they don't deliver at all. Or maybe 19 pizzas was about all I could handle in one night. (One of the greatest nights ever.)

What follows are reviews of the local places, from which I ordered two pizzas apiece. One was a thin-crust pepperoni, the other a freestyle pick based on vague memories, Internet menus and the body's occasional need for vegetables. The shops are listed in alphabetical order, because in this tangle of pizza styles, no clear winner emerged. But the good news - at least in 78701 - is that you're only about 45 minutes away from a knock at the door and the chance that this time, your pizza will be great instead of just convenient.

Let me know the best delivery pizzas in your part of town at msutter@statesman.com. Maybe I'll come over with a six-pack.

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902

Conans Pizza

603 W. 29th St., 478-5712; 2438 W. Anderson Lane, 459-3221; 2018 W. Stassney Lane, 441-6754; www.conanspizza.com.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays. 11 a.m. to midnight Fridays-Saturdays.

Delivery time: 57 minutes

Delivery fee: $2

The experience: I've been eating at Conans since Conan had less to do with O'Brien and everything to do with Schwarzenegger and Frazetta. I remember watching my college girlfriend's dad sweat through the jalapeños on the meaty Chicago-style 'Savage.'

Pepperoni: Conans is known more for its deep-dish pizzas, but the thin-crust pizza was elegant, like a pepperoni painting: a golden crust with a braided collar and perfect deployment of bright red circles. Solid taste and texture but not spectacular. Price: $14.90 for a large.

Freestyle: I wanted to get the Savage, but pizza is one of those foods where the vegetarian options are just as good. With artichoke hearts, spinach, garlic and sliced tomatoes, the deep-pan 'Don't Choke Art' was a CSA basket of bright garden flavors ringed by a whole-wheat crust like a crisp loaf of artisan bread. Price: $21.50 for a large.

Something extra: Still want to watch her dad sweat? Jalapeños are only 35 cents on any pizza.

Hoboken Pie

718 Red River St. 477-4256, www.hobokenpie.com.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. Mondays-Fridays. 3 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Saturdays-Sundays.

Delivery time: 53 minutes

Delivery fee: $2

The experience: Hoboken is an excellent example of how place matters. With its neo-Soviet agitprop graphics and majestic red pigeon, Hoboken is a muscular punk-rock bastion of the Red River experience. I had a slice from the oven there one late Thursday, served by a tattooed guy with a stegosauraus haircut, and it was a bubbly, crunchy revelation. The delivered version was a pop song in a mosh pit, a stage dive with nothing to break the fall.

Pepperoni: An extreme shade of orange, light on the pepperoni. Greasy, sharp and potentially rough on the stomach. Price: $13.50 for a 14-inch 'medium.' Fourteen inches is the industry standard for a large. At Hoboken, that's a medium.

Freestyle: The 18-inch 'Danzig' (black olive, ham, mushroom and extra cheese). Named for the dark-metal band with New Jersey roots, the Danzig pulses with the dusky tang of black olives and a stageworthy hamminess. Not many places deliver an 18-inch pie, but Hoboken even makes a 20-inch version. The bigger size worked against this pizza, putting more weight on the underdeveloped crust than it could bear. Price: $21.

Something extra: Our driver said that on Mondays and Tuesdays, Hoboken has started selling 18-inch single-topping pizzas for $9.99.

Mangia Chicago Stuffed Pizza

• 8012 Mesa Drive, 349-2126; 1700 E. Palm Valley Blvd., No. 300, Round Rock, 238-6300; 3016 Guadalupe St., Suite 100, 302-5200; www.mangiapizza.com.

• 2401 Lake Austin Blvd., 478-6600; 12001 Burnet Road, 832-5550. www.mangiaaustin.com.

Note: The Guadalupe Street, Mesa Drive and Round Rock locations are owned separately from the Lake Austin Boulevard and Burnet Road stores. Their menus and prices vary. I ordered from the Guadalupe Street location.

Hours: All locations open daily at 11 a.m. Closing times vary by store.

Delivery time: 34 minutes

Delivery fee: $2

The experience: Two groups of stores, two websites, two menus, two sets of prices. I felt like I had stumbled into Godzilla's family feud. Nice families, though. An endearing touch: The driver was weary to the bone from the heat, but she smiled when I apologized for not having change. 'Don't worry. That's my job,' she said, sorting through a fistful of singles.

Pepperoni: A crisp, flat collar and a blazing-hot blanket of bubbly cheese covering an abundant field of spicy pepperoni. This is the all-American pepperoni pizza. Price: $15.50 for a large.

Freestyle: Are you ready for the $30 sticker-shock? The Mangia Mia is deep-dish mass hysteria: sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, sliced tomatoes, green peppers, onions and garlic. On a wheat crust with a fortified edge both thick and cracker-like, this is more like a pizza casserole, as heavy as a lasagna dish, its layers covered by a deep red sauce, the flavors fully married. Two pieces and you'll be asleep on the couch. Price $29.75 for large.

Something extra: Plastic pizza spatula in every box. And Tony Montana would covet the fluffy white bags of shredded Parmesan. Say hello to my cheesy friends.

Rounders Pizzeria

1203 W. Sixth St. 477-0404, www.rounderspizzeria.com.

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays. 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.

Delivery time: 32 minutes

Delivery fee: $2

The experience: Two good things the order-taker did. One: Clarified that I meant 14 inches when I asked for large (Rounders also has an 18-incher, and the poor layout of the online menu can be confusing). And two: Found a gentle way to tell me the $2 delivery fee wasn't the driver's tip. Good to know. I usually tip $2 per pizza, because most drivers use their own cars and their own gas. I wish the shop had given this driver some change.

Pepperoni: A hot mess of a pizza, salty and porky on top, black and ashy on the bottom. Lots of tiny pepperoni slices with good, sharp flavor and a tangy blanket of cheese. Both Rounders pies suffered from the landslide syndrome. Read on. Price: $12 for a large.

Freestyle: Half of this pizza will be the best you ever had. That's because somewhere in the process, somebody put this pie on a tilt, and the ingredients moved over in a mozzarella mudslide. But what a half it was. I combined elements from my favorite pizza at Home Slice: sausage, roasted red peppers and ricotta cheese, and Rounders tossed in fresh garlic for free. The result was a counterweighted melange of cheeses both elastic and creamy, of sliced mild sausage, of sweet red pepper and stinging garlic, all on a perfectly brown and toasty crust. As a pizza, a disaster. As an Italian version of French onion soup, magnificent. Price: $16 for a large.

Something extra: The avalanche-averse might go for a stuffed calzone instead.

Whole Foods Market

525 N. Lamar Blvd. 542-2243, www.wholefoodsmarket.com/storesbeta/lamar/bicycle-delivery/

Delivery hours: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays-Fridays.

Delivery time: 48 minutes

Delivery fee: None

The experience: Who knew Whole Foods delivered pizza? Not everywhere, and not on the weekends. But our pizzas arrived by bicycle hot and in fine working order. The rider, unfazed by the trip, told me all about the store's grocery delivery service.

Pepperoni: When I put out leftovers at the office, people left this pizza alone. I think they were thrown by its earthy orange-brown color and the extra-large slices of leathery-looking pepperoni. But it tasted like the finest cured meat, the crust sturdy and toasted, one of the only slices that stayed parallel as I lifted it from the box. The bigger size gave it a satisfying foldability. Price: $13.99 for a 16-inch pie.

Freestyle: Veggie with spinach, tomato and mushroom. Exactly as advertised, with correct colors and flavors. Bright, crisp crust. The smartest kid in the class. Price: $13.99 for a 16-inch pie. The menu has changed since I ordered. The new veggie has spinach, tomato and feta, but I'm told you can customize.

Something extra: How do you deliver three quarts of coffee on a bike? Very carefully. ($12.99 with cups, cream and sugar.)

A slice of the national chains

For the full reviews, see austin360.com/forklore.

• Papa John's: Crispy crust, mild pepperoni, sweet sauce. Not a great pizza, but better than its competitors.

• Pizza Hut: The Chicken Supreme was ready for its closeup, among the prettiest pies of the night. A wide-collared crust, doughy and sweet.

• Gatti's Pizza: So this must be why cardboard is brown; it's multigrain. Points for longest delivery time: one hour.

• Domino's: If Domino's has improved its crust and flavor, I can't imagine how disappointing it must have been before.

- Mike Sutter