Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti began his career as a professional eater after participating in a pizza eating contest sponsored by Bacci’s. Having grown up over eating, Patrick’s twin sister thought the event would be perfect for her brother. When the contest ended, Patrick hadn’t even placed within the top three. He got so violently ill afterwards, he swore he’d never participate in a competitive eating contest again.
That was ten-years ago.
A decade later, Patrick has made a career out of eating. Professional eating has taken him from the southwest suburbs of Chicago to Australia, Prague, Thailand, Canada and at least thirty states. He holds world records for eating over five pounds of baby back ribs in eight minutes, downing a 22oz 7-11 Slurpee in nine seconds, gorging on nearly ten pounds of blueberry pie in eight minutes, and finishing forty-seven slices of pizza in ten. In his best year, Patrick competed in forty contests that made him nearly $50,000. Today, things have slowed down.
When we first meet, Patrick is sitting alone at a table in the middle of Vito & Nick’s. Coincidently, the carpet-walled Ashburn neighborhood institution is both of our favorite pizza places.
Patrick’s drinking a pitcher of RC Cola and reading 52 Loaves by William Alexander. The book, he explains, is about a man who spends fifty-two weeks trying to make the perfect loaf of bread.What first strikes me about Patrick is that he doesn’t look like a professional eater. “People always say, I thought you’d be fatter. That and they ask you how big your shits are after,” Patrick says.
Until he mentions it, his bowel movements didn’t cross my mind. I didn’t necessarily think Patrick would be fatter. But I did expect him to more closely resemble the picture I had in my head of what a professional eater would look like. I had imagined that professional eaters were short, stocky outcasts who wear sweatpants, are unashamed of their gassiness, and don’t own t-shirts that aren’t grease stained.
There are no grease stains on the picture of Bill Gates that’s printed across Patrick’s long sleeved shirt. He’s tall and has the amount of meat on his bones that you’d expect a man to have after stepping out of a winter as brutal as Chicago’s was this year. He’s got droopy brown eyes, the remnants of his once signature Mohawk, and a beard. There are no sweatpants.
I ask Patrick what kind of person he thinks the typical professional eater is. “Unemployable,” he says jokingly. “No. It takes a weird personality. It’s just a binger. An over-consumption personality.” After having watched a video on Patrick’s YouTube channel of him eating play-dough just to prove that he would eat anything, I think I understand. To dedicate your life to gorging on food, you have to be a bit over the top.
In professional eating, if you don’t place, you don’t get paid. “You’ve got to win. You’re more like a prize eater. You have to win money to cover your costs,” Patrick says. Even when he was ranked second in the world of professional eating and was under contract with the International Federation of Competitive Eating, Patrick rarely got flown to events for free.
According to Patrick, it takes anywhere between $10,000 and $20,000 to host a competitive eating contest. “It’s whoever has the money,” he says. This is why competitions are often sponsored by various brands like Hostess, La Costena, CP Shrimp. Often times the contest locations don’t correlate with the region’s most prevalent foods. “Like the gyro contest,” Patrick explains. “Which is in Houston of all places. The pizza ones I did were in Canada and Florida. It’s weird.”
Since you have to place in order to get paid, it’s essential that you practice for competitions. To prepare for the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, which airs on ESPN and averages more than one-million viewers, Patrick practiced three times a week. He would eat between fifty and sixty hot dogs at each practice. “I probably ate thousands of hot dogs to prepare.” No small task, especially since Patrick thinks hot dogs are the most difficult food to eat competitively. “It’s a lot of weight. It’s a lot of chewing. It’s every factor it takes to be a good competitive eater you have to do in that one.”
In the world of professional eating, finding ways to stand out will help get you noticed. Patrick’s dry sense of humor and shameless self-promotion make him a popular and memorable competitor. Once, while competing in a chicken eating contest, Patrick dyed his once-signature Mohawk fire-hydrant red to resemble a rooster’s mane. He appeared live on radio jockey Mancow’s show at 5:00 AM with a deep dish pizza he had to buy himself, heat up in the radio station’s microwave, and eat. He has a large presence online that includes a hilarious Wikipedia page that references Charles Bronson and Burt Reynolds as his personal heroes.
This is why I’m surprised by the bashful way in which Patrick talks about his professional eating accomplishments. Shrugging off appearances on Regis and Kelly and trips to various continents by staring into the ice cubes in his cup of RC Cola, slightly blushing and ending his sentences with, “I don’t know” or “something like that.” I don’t think Patrick is embarrassed by his career as much as he’s bored of it. He seems tired of talking about his bowel movements and having to devour lukewarm pizza on command.
When Patrick started eating professionally, he was nineteen. He described the average competition as, “You eat for ten minutes. You get paid and then you get to party like an animal.” Now, Patrick is older. It’s understandable that he may want to switch careers.
I ask Patrick why, out of all the things to get involved in, he chose professional eating. “I wasn’t good at anything else. I like to tell people that I was raped by the hand of God when it came to talent.” While I can’t attest to whether or not Patrick was raped by the hand of God, I can say that Patrick is good at much more than eating.
A graduate from Kendall College, Patrick undoubtedly knows food. He recently won Food Networks’ Food Court Wars. A reality show where the owners of food trucks compete for their own mall food court space. Thanks to the Food Network Patrick’s food truck, Taco in a Bag, now resides in the Spring Hill mall in West Dundee.
Taco in a Bag is more complex than the Frito chips and ground beef concoction that inspired the restaurant. There are a variety of tacos to choose from. All of which include homemade chips. With the nickname “Deep Dish,” it’s no surprise that Patrick has included pizza in a bag on the restaurant’s menu. Comprised of a meaty Bolognese sauce, parmesan cheese, basil, fried pepperoni, and homemade chips, pizza in a bag is a popular item.
Their menu includes donut hole sundaes as well. Fresh donuts are fried to order and covered with your choice of sauce and whipped cream. There are four sauces to choose from—Nutella, dulce de leche, peanut butter and jelly, and banana pudding. “Fresh donuts take like five-minutes but man, they’re fresh. You never get fresh donuts,” Patrick says. Taco in a Bag is restaurant that Patrick admits would probably do better in Chicago, where Patrick and his business partner plan on moving once their lease at the Spring Hill Mall is up.
While Patrick and I are talking, my Encyclopizzeria partner Stephen is interviewing Rose Baracco, the owner of Vito & Nick’s. Rose is preparing the three of us a pizza that her grandmother used to make. There’s no mozzarella, just a blend of parmesan, pecorino and romano cheeses paired with pizza sauce, fresh tomatoes, and anchovies imported from Italy.
The subject changes from gorging on food to pizza and Patrick’s bashful demeanor disappears. For Patrick, getting to try various pizzas throughout the world is one of the best parts about being a professional eater. He describes himself as a “pizza douche” and talks about pizza with an authority and eagerness that only a pizza douche could.
He tells us about his collection of pizza boxes from various continents, recommends a slew of New York pizzerias, and gives us a list of books to read on the food’s history. He admits that he once took a flight to Phoenix Arizona simply to eat at Pizzeria Bianco, a restaurant that the New York Times said had “perhaps the best pizza in America.” “I’m not sure any pizza is worth eight hours of traveling,” he confesses.
Rose brings out the pizza and Patrick starts asking her questions about her cooking process. They talk about the difference between olive-oil-packed and soybean-oil-packed anchovies, the intricacies of the bakery roller Rose uses, the seasoning of Vito & Nick’s ovens, and the complexity of the three-day au jus Rose uses for her Italian Beef. Patrick insists that he had a “small lunch”—an Italian Beef sandwich, a few hot dogs, and a polish sausage and that he isn’t too hungry. Still, the three of us devour Rose’s pizza in minutes. We order a second, mild giardiniera and sausage pizza and a pitcher of Old Style, which Rose informs us has been Vito & Nick’s only beer on tap since the restaurant opened.
As I reach for a square-cut slice, I wonder why Patrick has chosen to devote his time and taste buds to pizza and not a different food? Really, it’s simple. Pizza hits all of the flavors Patrick likes and, as he puts it, “—is really satisfying.” For a while, he tried to emulate his obsession for pizza with burgers, but it didn’t work. “Burgers just don’t do it for me. I always come back to pizza,” he says.
This year, Patrick isn’t competing in many large scale eating competitions like the Nathan’s Hot Dog Contest. He’s focusing on small scale competitions at local bars and harvest festivals. The prize money isn’t as substantial but the physical toll on his body is less. As the waitress brings us our second pizza I can’t help think that, for Patrick, these smaller competitions are like burgers. For now, they’ll wet his palette. But eventually he’ll come back to the pizza. Eventually, he’ll spike up the remnants of his Mohawk and get back into to the big leagues.