Stephan Nedwetzky’s circuitous path to becoming a barbecue joint owner in tiny Van Alstyne, about an hour north of Dallas, has been filled with pitfalls and second-guessing. The native of Dallas’s Pleasant Grove neighborhood spent his adolescent years in Rochester, New York, but after leaving the Marines in 1999, he came back home to Texas. “Being a Texan, I missed barbecue so much,” he said. He starting smoking in his backyard in Plano while running a landscaping company. After entering a barbecue competition in 2010 (even though Nedwetzky describes everything he turned in as “horrible”), he caught the bug. “It started to interfere with my landscaping business,” he said. So he shut it down to focus on barbecue.
“Everyone either laughed at me or told me I was stupid,” Nedwetzky said of the response to his decision. He wondered if everyone was right until he served what he considered the perfect brisket at a pop-up event. Will Fleischman, then-pitmaster at Lockhart Smokehouse, tried it and was impressed. “That’s still the best one that I’ve ever cooked,” Nedwetzky said. When a second Lockhart Smokehouse location opened in Plano in 2014, Fleischman asked him to come aboard. Nedwetzky worked there and at Smoke in Plano in what he calls brief stints before getting his own food truck. He called it Pit Commander Barbecue, his original competition team name. Nedwetzky chose the name because people said his long beard gave him a resemblance to Phil “Duck Commander” Robertson from the Duck Dynasty reality show. The “pit” part refers both to the old brick pit his father, who was a mason, built at his childhood home and to the mosh pit he helped whip into a frenzy while playing guitar for the heavy-metal band Lethargy during his days in Rochester. Either way, he said the name is a heck of a lot easier to pronounce than Nedwetzky Barbecue.
Pit Commander struggled to make a mark in the DFW scene, so in the winter of 2016, Nedwetzky loaded up some Texas post oak and went to Fort Myers, Florida. His sister lived there and selfishly wanted some good Texas barbecue nearby. “That’s where it really took off,” Nedwetzky said. His month-long visit turned into six months. But the draw of Texas was strong, and he returned in the summer. That’s when Yolanda Russotti, a woman he knew from Rochester, came to visit. “The first time I tried his brisket, I was like, ‘Will you marry me?’ ” she said with a laugh. She moved to Texas a month later. They married and now have a young daughter together.
The family alternated between Florida and Texas and rotated between serving barbecue and slinging barbecue pizzas under the name Texapolitan Pizza. In 2019, Nedwetzky and Russotti found what they thought would be their permanent barbecue home in the East Texas town of Murchison, but they closed their restaurant there in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic began. Nedwetzky couldn’t find a barbecue joint to hire him, so he worked for Chipotle by day and Pizza Hut by night to make ends meet. The couple headed back to Florida dejected, thinking they’d had enough of trying to succeed in Texas barbecue.
Then, out of nowhere, the State Fair of Texas emerged repeatedly in Nedwetzky’s dreams while back in Florida. “I kept waking up in the middle of the night smelling the fair,” he said. He checked the fair’s website last year and saw that it was accepting applications for new vendors. He submitted Texapolitan, and it was accepted. The couple took it as a sign to come back to Texas. After positive feedback from the fair’s organizers, the duo put a deposit down on a $30,000 wood-fired pizza oven from Italy. A month after moving back to Plano, they got word that a barbecue joint in downtown Van Alstyne had closed and the space was available. They took it and opened Pit Commander Barbecue last July.
As the couple started to build the business, they had to close the restaurant so they could serve at the fair in September. They made a daily average of 280 pizzas, topped with freshly smoked pork belly burnt ends, for 24 straight days. They credit the folks at Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que, a longtime fair vendor, for acting as their mentors and helping them through the process. Now they can’t wait for the fair to fire back up this year, but there’s plenty of barbecue to cook in the meantime.
Pit Commander Barbecue is open Thursday through Saturday for lunch. This past weekend was its most successful, with an early sellout on Saturday. I was there on Thursday for a second visit. The first, back in November, was a mixed bag of excellence and disappointment, but the restaurant was navigating a broken water line in the kitchen. This trip was far better, and I finally got to try those pork belly burnt ends from the famous State Fair pizza. They were perfectly cooked and heavily seasoned and glazed. The salt and sugar competed for dominance with the clean smoke flavor. I actually preferred the thick slice of pork belly, which Pit Commander sells as bacon brisket, an apparent homage to Dayne’s Craft Barbecue, in Fort Worth. It was more subtle than the burnt ends and seemed to melt on my tongue.
Nedwetzky is trying a few brisket suppliers to find the right quantity and quality of fat. He thought the lean side of what he was smoking this past weekend was on the dry side, and I agreed, though it was plenty tender, with a nice line of rendered fat on top. There will be a new brand of beef on the smoker this week.
Nedwetzky learned to make sausage at an old German butcher shop in Florida, and he uses those skills at the restaurant. I loved the jalapeño-cheese link, which was bursting with juice when I bit into it. Ask for it unsliced to get the most out of the experience. There were plenty of jalapeño chunks, but the spiciness was pretty tame. The bacon-wrapped jalapeños brought a bit more heat, and the bacon was nicely crisp. The tender spareribs got a hefty dose of rub and a splash of sauce, but the flavors dissipated in the foil wrap. I had planned to try the pulled pork, but it was off the menu. “We couldn’t sell a butt to save our lives,” Russotti said.
She makes all the sides, though most are Nedwetzky’s recipes. The potato salad was a bit soupy and spicy, which is how his folks like to make it. I liked the crunchy slaw, and the sweet broccoli salad was a good way to get something healthy. The mac and cheese made with creamy queso was tasty, but it was the pinto beans, in a savory broth spiked with chunks of tomatoes, onions, and brisket, that spoke to me most.
Russotti also makes all the sandwich buns from scratch. She uses a simple, Austrian-style white-bread dough to make knotted rolls. To me, it was reminiscent of a pretzel bun, though paler in color. It was perfect for the daily special of a thick, smoked brisket burger topped with American cheese, barbecue sauce, and pickles. The signature dessert is an Italian love cake, whose recipe is from Russotti’s family. To give it a Texas barbecue feel, Nedwetzky added bananas to the mix, creating Banana Love Cake and a potential rift in familial relations for messing with a recipe. I enjoyed it, though it wasn’t as sweet as I’d expected.
Van Alstyne is right in the middle of a dead zone for Texas barbecue along U.S. 75, and Pit Commander Barbecue fills the void admirably. When Nedwetzky and Russotti found the location, they hoped their joint could become a community favorite, but they knew it would take time for word to spread. Business is building slowly, but, Russotti said, “we’re still gambling on us, and we believe in what we’re doing.” If the barbecue joint flourishes, the next move will be a brick-and-mortar for Texapolitan Pizza. “Pizza is easier and the profit margins are insanely better,” Nedwetzky said, adding that making barbecue is more stressful than making pizza. So why not focus on pizza? “We’d still have to make barbecue for the pizza,” he said, so they might as well plan for both. Russotti said it’s also about building a solid foundation for their young daughter, who suffers from spina bifida. “We want to leave her something that’s going to take care of her for the rest of her life when we’re gone.” I think the community is up to the task, if only so we can keep a family of barbecue diehards in Texas and out of Florida.