Nick and Joe Ottomanelli, who already have two establishments on the Upper East Side, recently opened Ottomanelli Brothers, a restaurant on Fifth Avenue and 111th Street, just off the northeast corner of Central Park.
The place has a meat market décor with sawdust on the floor, and the menu offers a bargain $5.95 half-pound burger. But the real bargain, if you have the guts, is the “Hulk” Steak Burger Challenge, an old-fashioned promotional device devised by the brothers, who issue a daunting challenge. If you can eat the 24-ounce steak burger (that’s three of their normal hamburgers stacked with cheese and bread on a bun topped with fried onions) and fries and a 20-ounce soda within 20 minutes, your next lunch special is free.
The monster meal costs $12.95, and the general manager, Lou Rivera, keeps the stopwatch.
I saw this old-school big burger belly buster challenge in an advertisement in The Amsterdam News this week and called the restaurant and asked Nick Ottomanelli how often they get takers. Maybe once or twice a day, he said, but it’s hard to predict. Now Mr. Ottomanelli is no fool; he had a newspaper man on the phone.
Rather than leave it at that, he volunteered a friend of his to try it: Cal Ramsey, the former New York Knick who is 71 and a lifelong Harlem resident — and who knew nothing about the challenge, Mr. Ottomanelli admitted.
“I know Cal,” Mr. Ottomanelli said. “He’ll do it.”
He called back minutes later and said, “Come in Thursday at 1.”
So on Thursday at 1, Mr. Ramsey, 71, and two friends took a table with me and Mr. Ottomanelli. A waitress set these meals down in front of Mr. Ramsey and two friends, Gerald Rambert and Joel Kramer. Then Mr. Ottomanelli rang a bell and they began chowing down.
Mr. Ramsey started out strong, and the first patty was gone in a couple of minutes. Mr. Ramsey said he now works for the Knicks’ community relations department and is an assistant coach for N.Y.U.’s basketball team.
Mr. Ramsey attended Commerce High School (now Brandeis), and he can still rattle off his personal game statistics from high school through college (N.Y.U.) and the Knicks. He now lives in a rent-regulated apartment in Lenox Terrace, where Representative Charles B. Rangel has several rent-regulated apartments.
Mr. Ramsey was wearing an N.Y.U. sweatsuit, and his huge hands made even the monster-burger seem like a White Castle slider. Alas, his stomach is not in proportion, perhaps. When Mr. Rivera announced “Ten minutes left,” Mr. Ramsey groaned and said, “I’m already out of gas.” Still, he and the others kept eating, as Mr. Ottomanelli told stories.
“We opened this place even though there aren’t many restaurants here,” he said. “I told my wife, ‘So we’ll be pioneers.’ She said: ‘You know what pioneers look like? They’re the ones laying face down on the trail with an arrow in their back.’ ”
Then Mr. Ottomanelli told his pony story, which involves his moving his family out to Jersey years ago and being baffled by “country living.” He bought the family a pony and a saddle for a 16-hand horse, “for when the pony grew into a horse.”
“Every morning I’d look at him and wonder why this pony wasn’t growing into this saddle,” he said. “I’m a city boy. All these years, I never knew a pony isn’t a young horse; it’s a smaller version. My wife loves to tell that story.”
Mr. Rivera said that so far, only two people had won the challenge: a British man here on vacation, and a police officer from the 25th Precinct.
“The cop was a big guy, maybe six-six, and he ate it with his bulletproof vest on, and had a piece of cheesecake afterwards,” he recalled. “But the British guy was only five-five and 150 pounds. You never know.”
It’s true. Back at the triple-challenge table, Mr. Kramer, the smallest of the bunch, was making light work of his burger, beating the others. He befriended Mr. Ramsey 10 years ago.
“Herman Wolfe, Cal’s coach at Commerce High, later moved to Francis Lewis High School, where I played basketball,” Mr. Kramer said. “Cal was his best player ever, and I was the worst.”
Mr. Rambert and Mr. Ramsey each finished about two-thirds, and the waitress took away their plates. Mr. Kramer finished all but a few shreds of the bun. None of them won, because they did not finish their huge goblets of soda, which really makes this challenge a gut buster.
“There’s always next time,” Mr. Ottomanelli said, standing up, and the three well-fed men walked out, two of them with doggie bags.