Photo by ROBERT CONRADI
The rules are simple. Up to three people have 30 minutes to eat the pizza. If they finish, the pizza is free, and they get their names and a picture on “The Winner’s Wall of Fame.” If they lose, however, they have to pay the $40 price for the pizza and get a chalk mark under the loser’s column on the board of shame.
Jim Millan, 29, owner of Bella Italia and a Flint native, delivers the monster pizza with a thud, then announces the ground rules: “Time starts when they are ready. You can wait till the pizza cools a little.
Once it starts, there is no bathroom break, so everyone keeps it down.”
Our fearless contestants are Alan “Cool Hand” Scafuri, 47, of Chelsea, Matt “Two-Fisted Fury” Durr, 26, of Adrian, and James “Flash” Highsmith, 18, of Ypsilanti. They are wearing head and arm bands in sports fashion, as if to psyche themselves up.
To put a little perspective on the size of a 30-inch pizza, Millan places four regular large sized pizza boxes into the 30-inch box, which fit easily. He has to special order these 30-inch pizza boxes. And he also had to construct a heavy-duty pizza peel, the large wood spatulas that pizza chefs use to take the enormous pies out of the oven.
For those who think of a nine-pound pizza as something of an appetizer, Millan also has a 30-inch meat lover’s pizza challenge, which tops out at 15 pounds.
All confidence and male bravado drain from our heroes’ expressions when Millan takes out the pizza from the oven and places it into the large-size box.
“What was I thinking?” said Durr, while shaking his head and sitting over the bubbling pizza.
The pizza all but takes up an entire table that seats four. The trio stands above the pizza, anxiously rocking back and forth like football players in a pre-game huddle.
“Let’s do this,” said Durr. “Put your game face on.”
Highsmith looks skeptical.
Matt Durr of The Washtenaw Voice looks in wonder at the 30-inch pizza, as in, ‘I wonder how we are going to eat all this.’
“I am not sure,” said Highsmith. “I am a little bit doubtless right now. I am not going to lie.”
Durr, the self-appointed team leader, is taken aback by the lack of faith from his team member.
“What!” he exclaims. “I am the confident one. I am the leader, and when it comes down to it, I’m going to have to eat extra and sack up.”
These words are a welcome relief to Scafuri, who actually looks frightened.
“This is a hell of a big pizza,” Scafuri said ominously. Then he predicts his team will beat the record. “We’re going to eat it in 13 minutes and 12 seconds.”
“Maybe not,” said Highsmith, still a little awestruck.
Millan asks the three how they would like the pizza cut. They opt for eight even slices. The pizza is cut, and the time is set.
He even offers some tips.
“We had a few professional eaters in and they said that you should try to get as much in the first 15 minutes,” said Millan. “They (professional eaters) said after 15 minutes your brain tells your body that you are full. After that, you are fighting your body.”
Scafuri and Durr choose to sit, while Highsmith stands up. He had done a little research on competitive eating and read that standing is better. He also unbuckled his belt and unbuttoned his pants.
The time starts, and they are off.
“Cool Hand” Scafuri stays seated and digs in.
“Flash” Highsmith’s standing strategy does not seem like a good idea.
As he opts to roll the big slices of pizza into a large cigar shape and attempts to scarf it down, he’s also jumping up and down as he eats. This is another one of his researched strategies. But this backfires when his unbuttoned pants starts to fall down and both of his hands are a saucy mess.
The team cracks up with laughter joined by a few customers who stick around to watch the spectacle.
Halfway into his first slice, pizza sauce has already found its way to Durr’s pants. Highsmith is all over the map. He frantically shakes red pepper flakes on his now crazy roll of pizza mass and, for some reason, he is dipping it into his pitcher of water between bites.
“I am just afraid of the last slice,” said Highsmith.
Durr again has to counter his teammates’ doubts and fears. “You play to win the game,” he scolds.
At five minutes in, our team is looking good. All three are mostly done with their first slices — a third of the giant pizza gone. Highsmith and Durr decide to reserve their crusts to the end. Scafuri is opting to finish the entire slice one at a time.
“The bread (crust) is what is killing me,” said Highsmith, who turns to Durr and asks: “Do you want to eat my bread?”
They’re losing steam quickly. The second slices don’t go down nearly as easily, or quickly, as the first. One of the nine slices is noticeably smaller than the others, and all three stake a claim to it.
“I am slowing down guys,” admits Durr. “I talked a big game, but I am slowing down.”
Ten minutes in, and the prospect of leaving without paying for this pizza is not promising. Highsmith decides to remove all of the cheese from his second slice and leaves a pile of sloppy crusts in front of him.
“This is my get-to-it-later pile,” he said, like he actually meant it.
Our heroes are starting to groan and grumble from eating fatigue.
“Why?” moaned Highsmith, questioning his decision to attempt the 30-inch pizza. “We have so must crust. I just dread it.”
Durr starts to use a knife and fork, which seems to be working for him. By the third slice, the pizza loses its taste. Highsmith is hunched over with a huge slice of pizza in one hand and his other arm resting on the table preventing him from falling over.
“My wife was afraid I was going to have a heart attack,” Scafuri joked.
Doubt transforms the team. There have been 28 winners and 80 losers since Millen initiated this challenge three years ago, and our boys do not want to end up on the wrong side of the ledger.
Suddenly, Highsmith lies down on a cozy booth and symbolically declares defeat. There are about seven minutes left — and too much pizza. He grabs his last barely eaten slice and attempts to eat it from a lying down position. This is not a good idea.
“It’s a lost cause,” said Highsmith, throwing down a large folded mass of gnarled crust in contempt.
Durr also spikes his crust on the table.
The box looks mostly empty, but it is an illusion. Millan brings out a scale and weighs the remains. It comes to two-pounds.
Millan then walks over to the large chalkboard behind the counter, and his chalk breaks as he marks up another one in the loser’s column.
Suddenly, Scafuri lets loose with an apocalyptic belch.
“Ohhh,” Highsmith said, backing away. “That did not sound good.”
They paid their tab and left, defeated.