in rare form

David A. Dell'Aquila of Ellicott City has an appetite for meat and a challenge. Two 48-ounce steaks are no problem. The rest is gravy.

August 19, 1999|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

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

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