It's hard not to stare. The piece of meat is thick as a Baltimore phone book, wide as a pie tin and shaped like a human heart. It's got a presence on the dinner plate, on the table, perhaps even the room. It challenges: Go ahead, eat, take your best shot. Some people have dogs that don't weigh this much.
You need a moment to absorb the 3-pound mass of this Porterhouse steak, not to mention the notion that soon this steak will be consumed and followed by another just like it. Chew on this thought: two 48-ounce steaks eaten in one sitting by a man not playing in the National Football League.
There's hardly time for contemplation, however, not once the stainless steel cover has been removed and Steak No. 1 placed before David A. Dell'Aquila, armed with a dinner fork and a knife resembling something from a Davy Crockett documentary. In a blink he's on it, utensils working with the ruthless efficiency of farm machinery.
After whatever-million years of evolution, here we are, sitting in Shula's Steak House on a summer night with a computer consultant, a man with a 21st-century brain and an appetite deeply aroused by ancient blood passions.
"When I get around meat I get some primal urges," says Dell'Aquila, 38, of Ellicott City, who says he eats red meat three, maybe four times a week. "I get psyched up. It kind of energizes me."
Make it medium-rare or rare. Wave it once over a hot grill. Make it raw with black pepper or serve it as it hangs on the butcher's hook. Make it prime rib, Porterhouse, filet mignon, sirloin, tenderloin. As Dell'Aquila sees it, red meat can be overcooked but not over-served.
Last December, seven months after Shula's opened in the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel, Dell'Aquila became part of the restaurant's history as the first person to eat two 48-ounce steaks in a sitting. People walked over to shake his hand. Every time he's come in since then, a ripple runs through the place. See that guy? The guy with the wire-rim glasses, the really big guy (he's 6-foot-6, 282 pounds). That's the guy. The one who ate two 48-ouncers.
Dell'Aquila's name pops up in pursuit of answers to two questions: 1) What's the biggest cut of meat served for one at a Baltimore steakhouse? 2) Who actually eats such a thing?
Ruth's Chris serves a 64-ounce Porterhouse for two. Shula's and Morton's of Chicago offer Baltimore's biggest beef serving for one: a 48-ounce Porterhouse. Deducting bone weight of about 10 ounces gives you nearly 2.4 pounds of meat per steak.
Managers of Shula's and Morton's were consistent in their initial lack of enthusiasm for this inquiry. Neither returned calls for leads on regular 48-ounce eaters among the patrons.
But when the question is put to Shula's assistant general manager, J.R. Keelin, he immediately thinks of Dell'Aquila. Plenty of folks have eaten one 48-ounce steak he says, pointing out a plaque on the restaurant wall and the guest book listing members of the "48-ounce Club." But check this guest book notation: Dec. 12, 1998. A guy from Ellicott City eats two in a sitting.
Another moment of Dell'Aquila's life in beef. It's a way the man has of staying in people's memory. Friends and colleagues talk about it. Man, you should have seen the cut he ate that night.
That time in Omaha
It must be five years ago but former colleague Joseph Barba still remembers the steak Dell'Aquila ate at a restaurant in Omaha, Neb.
"I think it was 84 ounces," says Barba, of Buffalo, N.Y. "I think he beat the [restaurant's] record, or just missed it by 2 ounces."
Dell'Aquila, who was working in Omaha at the time, relishes the story. The biggest steak on the menu at the time was 32 ounces. "That's all?" he said, or words to that effect. Somebody in authority said go into the kitchen, tell the chef what size steak you'd like. As Dell'Aquila tells the story he spreads his hands farther and farther apart. Finally he's pantomiming something the size of an IBM laptop.
He finished that, then ate the leftovers off a few of his pals' plates. Did we mention the escargot appetizer, salad and key lime pie?
When Dell'Aquila was a teen-ager in the Pittsburgh suburbs, his family occasionally awakened in the dead of night to a powerful, smoky aroma. Steak, heavily seasoned with cracked black pepper, was sizzling somewhere close by. The kid was at it again, either at the backyard grill or in the kitchen.
"It would be 2 o'clock in the morning," says his father, Louis Dell'Aquila, 68, a semi-retired lawyer now living in the Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley. "He'd have the whole house smoked up."
David was growing. And growing. He played offensive and defensive tackle for Upper St. Clair High School, making the varsity squad as a sophomore. He played ball his first year at Princeton, but during summer practice before his sophomore year he suffered knee and back injuries. The football playing ended but the football appetite did not.
Meet your meat
Dinner at Shula's begins with an introduction to the meat. Here comes the waiter, Andrew Conlin, wheeling out a tray of samples set on a bed of greenery. One by one he holds them up, each cut sealed in clear plastic. The 16-ounce New York sirloin strip, the 22-ounce "cowboy" steak, the 32-ounce prime rib. The list goes on, all "certified Angus beef." In the middle of the tray there's a live lobster, probably a 4-pounder. Conlin holds that up, too. The lobster languidly waves its legs, as if bidding farewell.
This is no place for such sentiments. A steakhouse is a restaurant and also a time machine. Might as well be a summer evening of an age when men wore fedoras to the ballpark and everybody smoked. It's as if nobody ever heard of animal rights and cholesterol or linked beef to everything from colon cancer to destruction of the tropical rain forest. As if American beef consumption had not dropped 10 percent in the last 19 years. Conlin's presentation suggests ceremony; let the celebration of beef begin.
He takes orders for the party of six, but there's no mystery about Dell'Aquila's selection. He cut a deal with the general manager, Adam Sabri: If he finishes two 48-ounce Porterhouse steaks ($59.95 each), he and his fiancee eat for free. His colleagues, Carlos Perez and Michael Dunn, the reporter and photographer are on their own.
How do you feel, champ?
"Well, I'm not as hungry as the last time," says Dell'Aquila, referring to the previous 96-ounce night. That time, he came in with a colleague and got the restaurant to give him the second steak half price and throw in a bottle of champagne.
Now the pressure's on. Press in the house. Staff on alert. Manager's challenge on the table. Dell'Aquila is having regrets about the afternoon's lunch -- a third of a sausage pizza and a couple of brownies.
"You're better off," says Dunn, a husky, 6-foot-3 computer operations manager at Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown. "If you stop eating, your stomach starts to shrink."
"Oh, don't worry about his stomach shrinking," says Dell'Aquila's fiancee, Marita Ventura, 41, who works for his consulting firm. Next to Dell'Aquila she's a splinter at 5-3, 110 pounds. Ventura, who's having the mahi-mahi this evening, betrays no great worries about the health of her beef-loving betrothed.
He's happy to tell how he recently bought disability and life insurance. This involved a full physical. Everything checked out. Cholesterol? No problem, he says. All right, it has risen steadily in the last six years -- from 130 to 161 to 180 -- but hey, that's still considered within safe range.
He says he does balance the meat-mania with helpings of fruit, vegetables, grains. Also fair amounts of chocolate, but that's another story.
"People say, 'You eat so much meat. You're going to die,' " Dell'Aquila says. "My cholesterol is better than theirs."
Shortly before 10 p.m., dinner is served. Conlin uncovers Dell'Aquila's plate. Behold now behemoth. Potent Porterhouse vapors envelop downtown Baltimore. Dell'Aquila dives in like a man pursued by demons.
Under normal circumstances, no one would care that the time is 9: 58. But Dunn takes note. Earlier in the evening, restaurant manager Sabri checked with Shula's in Tampa, Fla., and learned that the steak-eating speed record is a 48-ounce steak in eight minutes. That's all Dell'Aquila had to hear.
"Why are you eating so fast?" asks Ventura. "You think you're going to beat that record?"
Dell'Aquila doesn't stop to respond.
"Mmmbuh," he says.
"He's in the zone," says Dunn.
At Guinness Media Inc., press contact Cindy Cominsky says that concern about safety and health prompted the Book of World Records to stop tracking milestones in food consumption sometime after 1990. That year, Guinness reported that a British fellow, Peter Dowdeswell, set a hamburger eating mark with 21 burgers in 9 minutes, 42 seconds. Cominsky knows of no steak-eating record.
There is some dispute as to whether Dell'Aquila is the only person ever to eat two 48-ouncers in a sitting at Shula's in Baltimore. Sabri says a man calling himself "Big Mike" walked in last May 1 with a mind to establish a new house record. Hearing about Dell'Aquila's feat, "Big Mike" claimed he'd see those two steaks and raise him one.
Sabri shows the May 1 notation in the book: Michael A. Mathern of Woodbridge, Va. Finished the first steak and three quarters of the second. Never got to the third.
No way, says Mathern, 25, an administrator at Potomac Senior High School in Dumfries, Va.
"The two is not the problem," says Mathern, claiming he did indeed eat two 48-ouncers. That third one, though, forget that. One little bite and that was it.
"Too much meat," says Mathern, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 351. When school is out he works as a bouncer at a Georgetown sports bar.
10: 06 p.m.: Dell'Aquila's steak has apparently been attacked by piranha. Stripped of all but stray wisps of pink flesh, only the bone remains. He has at least tied if not beaten the eight-minute record.
"I feel OK," he says.
But, for heaven's sake, where's Steak No. 2? A minute goes by. Then another and another. Dell'Aquila's getting anxious.
To eat this much one has to eat quickly, as Robin Spence, dietitian with cardiac services at Union Memorial Hospital explains later.
"The glucose signal takes a while to get to the brain. So if the meal doesn't include carbohydrates there's this delay in time while you're eating and eating and not quite feeling it. Still, I just don't see how physically his stomach holds up."
Yet it does. Through Steak No. 1 and then No. 2, which arrives at 10: 11, and which Dell'Aquila finishes in a relaxed 27 minutes, noting the "nice, rich buttery taste." Through a few little mushrooms and some bits of green pepper on the side. Through four Miller Lites before the meal and three Absolut and cranberry juice cocktails during.
This calls for a celebration. Sabri brings out the restaurant staff. Dell'Aquila somehow rises from his chair, accepting congratulations, handshakes and a football signed by former Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula. But what about dessert?
Dell'Aquila finishes a little chocolate souffle topped with vanilla ice cream and creme anglaise, a slice of key lime pie and a slice of red velvet cake with macadamia nuts and whipped cream icing. Did we mention the glass of tawny port? No coffee, though. Dell'Aquila never touches caffeine. He's been off coffee about 10 years, he says.
"It stains your teeth," he says. "It's bad for you."