On a recent Friday night, Vicki Tunkel stepped up to the plate. Or rather, the pan. Tunkel’s goal was to eat a 16-inch pizza by herself. She was one of four persons or teams on the Friday Night Fight card at Bella Napoli Pizza, where pizza-eating contests are held every Friday and Saturday.
The premise is simple. Contestants must eat a certain size pizza in less than 30 minutes. They pay an entry fee based on the size of the pizza and the number of teammates. Eat the entire pizza; win money. There are few rules.
“Don’t spit, don’t puke, and don’t give your pizza away,” says Guiseppe Cincinnato, Bella Napoli’s owner. Cincinnato started the contest after he made a bet with a customer that the man couldn’t eat a 30-inch pizza. (Cincinnato won.)
At a glance, seen smoking a cigarette behind the counter, he is an imposing man. As he serves slices, his smile and friendly banter puts customers at ease. He encourages Tunkel as he starts the clock and then insists I take a piece of pizza to get a better idea of what she’s trying to do. It’s hearty stuff.
Tunkel’s boyfriend also provides encouragement. He stands next to her, offering the dubious support of summarizing the plots of whichever “Rocky” movies he can recall. “So there’s this boxer, right? And no one believes in him, except his manager and this girl.”
“Rocky II” eventually merges with “Rocky” and plotlines from the other movies intersect like the umbilical cords of cheese that cling to the rest of the pie whenever Tunkel picks up a slice. “Who was the villain in that one? Mister T was in number three, right?”
I marvel at the fact Tunkel has finished half the pizza in less than 10 minutes. Her boyfriend says it’s nothing:
“If you had a TV with Comedy Central on, she’d have done it ten minutes ago.”
There’s 7 pounds of dough, 3 pounds of cheese and 40 ounces of sauce on a 30-inch pizza. Cincinnato says fewer than 20 percent of the teams finish, but most know their limit.
“Only two teams have puked.”
Tunkel is eating a 16-inch pizza. She weighs 103 lbs. At the table next to her, four girls use napkins to sponge the grease off the top of a 30-inch pizza and begin the process of failing to eat it.
“This girl can eat so much it’s frightening,” Tunkel’s boyfriend says. “She’s more of a long distance runner than a sprinter.”
While we stand talking, Tunkel’s pace has slowed.
“Get up, walk around a little bit, but keep the pizza in your hands,” Cincinnato tells her.
She stands up, bends a knee and pulls her foot behind her butt in a hamstring stretch.
“There’s a way to win,” Cincinnato says. But when the pizza gets too hard and your jaw gets tired, it’s over.”
The four girls at the table next to Tunkel have stopped eating. Cincinatto walks over to them and holds out a fistful of $100 bills.
“Eat of all of that in the next five minutes, I’ll give you $1,000.”
I had assumed the contest’s participants would be mostly beefy drunken guys, looking for easy cash and some attention.
“More women than men,” Cincinnato says.
“It does somewhat surprise me if you look at society’s messages concerning women,” said Alison Brzenchek, the University of Michigan Health System’s health education coordinator for eating issues. “I think we’ve been socialized as women in public to eat a certain way, and I think that most women are potentially uncomfortable in public settings eating large amounts because of what judgments people might make. I don’t think this is the way to conquer that problem, but to a certain degree, it’s good that women feel comfortable.”
Tunkel stands up, sucks in her stomach and rebuttons her pants.
“I tried chewing really fast – I tried not eating the crust first,” she says.
“One of the things our culture does is put a lot of contradictions out there,” Brzenchek said. “We glorify thinness, but we also have a lot of commercials out there – ‘Supersize’ it, eating to the excess … I think as a nation, that we’ve really lost touch with our hunger and safety.”
“I would be concerned about how women felt after eating a large amount of food,” Brzenchek said.
At the table next to Tunkel, the four girls concede defeat and shed an Al Gore-style light on it.
“We sit here and look at it and are depressed,” one of the girls says. “We all wore sweat pants.”
“I’m gonna explode,” says another.
Some people employ any manner of ritual to help them finish the pizza.
“These two guys went outside and smoked marijuana,” Cincinnato says. “They couldn’t eat a single slice.”
He says contestants who stop at the bar before eating rarely finish and that most teams don’t come back for pizza for at least a couple weeks after a contest.
The question of whether the contest might send unhealthy messages doesn’t seem to have come up at the restaurant. For Cincinnato, who provides free meals for the homeless and has even bought them clothes, it is more like an extended expression of generosity and camaraderie.
Cinncinato admits he makes little money from the contests because most of the spectators who come to watch don’t actually buy any pizza.
“But we’re going to keep doing it,” he says.
That keeps options open for Tunkel’s rematch with the pizza.
As she slowly puts on her coat, she smiles at her boyfriend’s final quip.
“You want to do it again?” he asks.
Bella Napoli Pizza is located at 615 E. University Ave. and is open from 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. daily.