I’m incredibly sad to inform you, reader, that this is quite possibly my final post at Milwaukee Record. You see, I am dying. Probably very soon.
Okay, perhaps none of that stuff is exactly true. However, as I draft these words, I feel as if I’m not long for this world, and the mere act of stringing together coherent sentences amid such discomfort has become as difficult as [finish the rest of this simile with something awesome and poetic when I have more energy]. While I’m probably not actually dying and my career in irreverent mid-market “journalism” will likely continue until the owner of Milwaukee’s Comedy Cafe has me whacked or we totally get bought by some hotshot media mogul [stifles laughter, tears], I’m now a man whose mind, spirit, and stomach lining were all just pushed to the brink of collapse.
Just hours earlier, I was laboriously pacing around the parking lot of a Mequon movie theater parking lot, struggling to hold in close to four pounds of partially masticated pizza and what particulate drops of self-respect remained within me. I’ve never been more full, yet I’ve rarely felt so empty. What brought on this paradoxical pizza pity party, you ask? I tried and utterly failed Zaffiro’s first “Big Z Challenge.”
Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of the Big Z. It’s a relatively new menu item at Zaffiro’s—beloved local pizza institution and frequent recipient of Shepherd Express’ annual “Please advertise with us in exchange for this mass-produced plaque!” award—that came to the pizzeria’s Marcus Theatre locations in Mequon and New Berlin at the end of September. Hell, I didn’t know it existed until about a week ago, when I received a mysterious email that would forever change/shorten my life. Its subject: “A Year’s Worth of Zaffiro’s, All At Once.” It turns out a Marcus Theatres communications specialist named Lindsey was familiar with some my past “work” in the realm of self-designed eating and drinking ordeals. Per her email:
“Marcus Theatres recently introduced a massive pizza called “Big Z” at its North Shore and Ridge Zaffiro’s locations. It’s four square feet of pizza, weighs 5.5 pounds and has unlimited topping selections (1,228,859,344 different topping combinations—seriously, we did the math). This thing is 50 pieces of Milwaukee’s beloved Zaffiro’s pizza. According to a few highly credible websites, the average person eats 46 pieces of pizza per year. So, if my math is correct, the Big Z is more than a year of pizza. Want to try it?”
No, I did not. But since I’m now at that sweet, sweet “get offered the opportunity to participate in personally hazardous eating challenges”-level of local notoriety (HELLO, LADIES!), and I—being a member of the human race—have a tough time passing up free pizza, I knew what I had to do. I needed to try to eat the Big Z. At first, I asked and was permitted to bring in a partner for this. However, the headline “Two adult male Wisconsinites share pretty big pizza” didn’t have quite the best ring to it and, frankly, after seeing a picture of it in all its cracker-thin crust glory (below), it suddenly seemed doable.
Still, I recruited a volunteer to serve as witness, photographer, time keeper, and possible exit driver for this mission. Tyler Chicorel of Whips and Space Raft asked to come almost immediately. Equal parts excited, terrified, and hungry from more than 12 hours subsisting on only water, energy drinks, and a banana, I picked up Tyler around 1:30 p.m. Monday and we headed for North Shore Cinema, where I had a date with destiny. Following the 20-plus minute trek to Mequon, complete with unexpected traffic stoppage on I-43, I figured the worst part of the journey was over. Boy, was I wrong.
Lindsey welcomed us almost immediately upon entering the virtually empty pizza place. Over the weekend, I gave her my Big Z order—half pepperoni, half jalapenos, light mushrooms on all of it. Yes, I know plain cheese would’ve been a better bet, but I wanted to do this fairly. My father raised me to live my life under one major principle: Eatin’ ain’t cheatin’. I’m pretty sure he meant something else by that, but I was going to apply it to honorably attempting pizza challenges. Anyway, as we waited for a $35.95 slab of cheese, sauce, crust, and toppings intended to comfortably feed a family of four, we chatted with Lindsey. She told she was glad to be out of the office to witness the first attempt to eat the Big Z solo. Tyler pondered ordering a salad to really hammer home the absurdity of my task. Soon, my Big Z was delivered to my tucked away corner booth (per my request, fewer diners to gross out). It was, uh, bigger than it looked on the Internet, but I’ve never sent back an order before and I wasn’t about to start now. Before it had to time to cool and before I had a chance to ponder exactly how many things went wrong to lead me to this place in my life, I started eating.
I did a quick count and found there were actually just 45 slices instead of the 50, meaning the 20-slice jalapenos side just had bigger pieces. Just 45 slices? Maybe finishing this behemoth in 75 minutes was possible. Once again, I had only eaten a banana the past 12-plus hours and I liked pizza, especially Zaffiro’s pizza with my favorite toppings on it. With the strange backing of techno music behind me, I took my first bite. Perhaps it was a mixture of hunger, anticipation, and trying to keep a positive spirit, but the first few slices were delicious. The crust was crispy, the cheese melted to perfection, the sauce flavorful with a zesty kick. Through eight minutes, I effortlessly put down 13 slices. Within 15 minutes, I had dispatched 20 slices and, strangely, I felt okay. As I worked my way down the massive wooden pizza board, Tritonal & Cash Cash’s classic club banger “Untouchable” played a little too loudly on a nearby TV. Still, the grating techno jam was a fitting soundtrack for the moment. With 60 minutes and 25 slices of a 45-slice monster remaining, I WAS untouchable…and not just because the attractive 40-something woman sitting two tables away looked confused and disgusted by my Monday afternoon gluttony. I was on pace to do this.
One thing basic mathematics doesn’t factor in is the stomach size of a man who weighs less than 200 pounds. By the time 23 minutes elapsed, I was only working on my 26th slice. I was now on the right side of 45 slices, but was getting ready to accept I was on the wrong side of history, and that I wouldn’t be the first person to complete the Big Z Challenge. While buying time between labored bites, I warned Lindsey it might not be the best business idea to bring such a gross and daunting test of consumption to a suburban family restaurant. She, seemingly no longer too psyched to be spending her work day watching Lovehandle Dave Grohl shove pizza down his gullet, had pretty much stopped making eye contact by that point. Tyler, too, decided against ordering food. I fear I may have ruined pizza for him.
Worse yet, I wondered whether I ruined pizza for myself. I quickly found every slice of pepperoni to be more excruciatingly salty than they were less than half an hour earlier. The cheese was beginning to harden. The crust was beginning to soften. I think I was able to deduce what that zesty kick was in the sauce: lots and lots of salt. A thing I loved minutes earlier quickly became something I hated. I felt like Homer Simpson cementing his “Greenhorn” status when he failed to eat that huge steak. I started to pray Tony Randall would walk through the door to give me eating tips. But Tony Randall was dead, and my chances of Big Z glory were on life support.
By the 30-minute mark, I had 28 slices down. By this point, I came to terms with the fact I wouldn’t be finishing, but I wanted to make my performance in this absolutely shameful endeavor the least embarrassing I possibly could. But first I needed a break, or a “Za-bbatical” if you will. I sipped my third pint of water and strolled around the restaurant (that was now thankfully devoid of Mequon milfs) in a futile effort to collect myself and find a second wind that would not blow my way. After a few minutes, I returned to the booth, but remained standing as I meekly ate laughably small bites of jalapeno and mushroom pizza. Pepperoni was dead to me now. The last two-plus pieces were incredibly difficult. My mouth watered—in the puke preparation way, not out of hunger—as I nibbled my way towards a goal that, at 63 minutes, was decidedly out of reach. Soon, standing grew uncomfortable, too, and I resorted to laying in the booth and mindlessly biting into room temperature ‘za. I was somehow shivering and hot at the same time. I couldn’t focus on slice math or basic conversation. Even the sunlight grew to be an annoyance. The techno still wasn’t helping. It’s actually possible to have too much of a good thing.
Partway into my 31st slice (more than two-thirds of the way into my ill-fated Big Z solo mission), my 75 minutes were through. It didn’t matter. If I had 75 more, I maybe could’ve polished off the remainder of that 31st slice and nothing more. Lindsey gave me some consolation prizes—a Straight Outta Compton cap, a Star Wars Boba Fett mini bobblehead, and a Wally World shirt from the craptastic 2015 National Lampoon’s Vacation movie—and sent us on our way. I didn’t even try to shake her hand because I felt too greasy and disgusting. This brings us to the North Shore Cinema parking lot, with me stumbling around the asphalt, gagging, sprawled out in the back seat of my car, seeking the motivation to drive home, and harboring the duality of being both full and completely empty inside.
Yes, I failed the first-ever Big Z Challenge, but if you really think about it, succeeding in such a piggish mission could arguably be considered an even bigger failure. I might feel out of step with the world most days and frequently bout with moments of disconnection from those around me, but when it comes to my inability to eat an entire four-foot pizza in one sitting, I’m part of the majority. I’m part of something. I belong. Monday in Mequon, I learned my limits…but I was also reminded that I’m human. In this lonely and calloused world, sometimes that’s enough.