Pizzitola’s Bar-B-Cue has gone through many transformations in its 87-year history in Houston. The original location was bulldozed to make way for Interstate 10. A name change came along with new ownership in 1983. Since then, it has seen two new owners. And eighteen months ago, the pit room got a new addition: a steel offset smoker. Although the restaurant still uses a pair of ancient brick pits, thanks to a grandfather clause.
Those brick pits are the workhorses of the kitchen. They go back to the early days of the restaurant, when it was called Shepherd Drive Bar-B-Q. In 1935, John Pinckney Davis and his wife, Leila, began serving barbecue out of their home under that name. Leila did all the cooking in the beginning while John was away at his job for a scale manufacturer. He would help serve when he returned home.
Jerry Pizzitola, who is nearly eighty, was a customer of the Davises when he was young. His father would take him to eat the brisket, pork ribs, and juicy links. In an unpublished interview conducted by Amy C. Evans of the Southern Foodways Alliance in 2007, he recalled the picnic tables behind the building where he and other white customers ate. It was during segregation, and the dining room for the Black-owned Shepherd Drive Bar-B-Q was for Black customers. White customers ordered from a window in the back of the house, where a smokestack rose from the brick pits tended by the Davises.
Pizzitola remembered the long waits for the barbecue. John Davis was deliberate about preparing an order, so you didn’t come to Shepherd Drive Bar-B-Q for a quick bite. Davis’s sandwiches came on white bread rather than buns, and he offered up white bread and sauce to customers before the barbecue arrived. While they waited, “we could eat a loaf of bread with just his sauce,” Pizzitola remembered. The joint also served potato salad and beans, but no chicken. You could get the tangy sauce with a takeout order only if you brought your own vessel to carry it in. “If you wanted something to go from John, you’d either accept it in butcher paper or bring your own pot,” Pizzitola told the SFA. When he took over the business, Pizzitola was surprised to see longtime customers arrive at the restaurant with pots for their barbecue. Current general manager Tim Taylor said the last time a customer brought their own pot was in 2020.
The Davis family was forced to move their home and barbecue operation to make way for the construction of I-10. They reopened in 1963 in the same building the restaurant inhabits today, just a couple blocks south of the original. Davis had a bricklayer tear down his old pits and haul the bricks to the new building. The pits were rebuilt in the kitchen and remain in use today. They’re two of the few brick pits still permitted in Houston. And they’re used for more than barbecue.
“It’s our oven,” Taylor said of the pits. In addition to cooking barbecue, they are used for sides like baked mac and cheese and stewed cabbage, and desserts like pies and peach cobbler. The only burner in the place is where the potatoes are boiled for potato salad, and pinto beans and house-made barbecue sauce simmer.
Getting the barbecue sauce recipe took some coaxing on Pizzitola’s end. Leila Davis died in 1979, and John followed two years later, taking the sauce recipe with him. Their daughter Lois took over, but it was a hard business to run. Pizzitola offered several times to take over the business, but Lois wouldn’t accept—because she was skeptical about his barbecue skills, he assumed. On Memorial Day 1983, he invited Lois, her brother Lynwood (both have since died, but the building and the land are still owned by the Davis family), and their families to come try his barbecue. The legendary Houston Oilers running back Earl Campbell was a friend of Pizzitola’s, and he let it be known to the Davis family that Campbell would also be in attendance. “I don’t know whether she came to see if I could barbecue or just because Earl was there, but it doesn’t matter,” Pizzitola said. Lois agreed to let him lease the place two months later.
When Pizzitola took over he bought the sauce recipe from John’s grandson, but it wasn’t right, according to some regular customers. Lynwood still frequented the business. He was deaf and mute, but Pizzitola learned enough sign language to communicate with him. Lynwood came back to the kitchen to show him how to re-create the sauce, and it’s the recipe the joint still uses today. It’s heavy on the ketchup and black pepper, and isn’t too sweet.
The building, the brick pits, and the sauce remained the same, but Pizzitola made a number of changes that are still seen today. He added table service and cloth napkins. If you order meat on the bone, you’ll get a warm towel to wipe your hands at the end of the meal. The sandwiches come on buns, and the sauce is served warm in small pitchers along with every plate of barbecue. The biggest change, though, was the name. “I don’t know why I didn’t keep it Shepherd Drive Bar-B-Q,” Pizzitola told the SFA. He kept the sign out front that read “Shepherd Drive Bar-B-Q,” while the one on building said “Pizzitola’s,” adding to the confusion. The older sign came down decades ago after too many cars hit it.
Taylor recently hung a collection of photographs from the restaurant’s past in a sort of memorial timeline. They include photos of the Davis family and an enlarged business card of John’s that reads “World’s Greatest Barbecue Man.” There are images of Pizzitola, who sold his majority interest in 2019, and of Willie Madden, who owned the joint for two short years until he died suddenly in 2021. James Maida took over majority ownership earlier this year, and Taylor is in his second stint as general manager.
“Two years ago I agreed to come back for six months,” Taylor said with a laugh when I sat down with him recently at the restaurant. Six months had also been the length of his original contract back in 2003, when he first came on to bring the business into the current century. “Payroll was still being done in a spiral notebook,” he remembered. He left for a few years, but Madden asked him to return in May 2020. Recovering from the toll of the pandemic, especially for the catering operation, was his first order of business. His second was improving the smoked brisket. Eighteen months ago, Pizzitola’s took the first step by adding an offset smoker for the briskets and the pork shoulders. It’s fueled with hickory, just like the Davises would have done it, but it also frees up some room in the crowded brick pits and allows the brisket to smoke slowly and evenly.
I stopped in at the end of 2020, and before I knew about the new smoker, I wondered what they’d done to go from thin slices of dry brisket to thick slices of the juicy stuff. Maida and Taylor gave me the full tour recently. I met young pitmasters Esteban Hernandez and Ruben Angel. They work alongside Christine Lewis, a 39-year member of the kitchen staff. My server was Cindy Cook, who has waited tables at Pizzitola’s for 25 years. They all raved about the new smoked burger on the menu, and for good reason. It’s made with brisket trimmings and seasoned heavily with salt and black pepper. The half-pound patty starts in the low heat of the offset, then is finished to order over the higher heat of the brick pit and topped with a thick slice of melted cheddar, pickled onions, and arugula.
A few other new touches include the brisket queso, barbecue fajitas, and the Fridays-only brisket enchiladas. New sides like smoked cabbage, pit-roasted street corn, and smoked mac and cheese are great additions as well. “It’s not the old Pizzitola’s anymore,” Taylor told me, except it can be if you’d prefer. I’m just as happy with a scoop of mustard-mayo potato salad, Texas caviar, and a warm bowl of the meaty pinto beans. Fans of the classic salt-and-pepper St. Louis ribs and the smoky chicken have nothing to fear, as they’re both cooked the way they’ve always been, on the brick pits, and they both go well with that classic sauce. Pizzitola’s is also open late, until 8 p.m., though the mid-afternoon brisket I had a few months back had lost some of its vibrancy.
After my meal, Taylor showed me a faded photo of a customer feeding a rib to his young grandchild. Recently, a grown man ordered some ribs and told Taylor he was the young boy in that photo. Taylor surmised he would probably bring his son in to dine one day. Such is the legacy carried on at Pizzitola’s. The place is not an exact replica of the Shepherd Drive Bar-B-Q that came before, but it carries on the memory of John and Leila Davis. I agree with Pizzitola that changing the name was shortsighted, but it’s good to see the fires burning in the old brick pits John thoughtfully preserved.
1703 Shepherd Drive, Houston
Hours: Monday–Sunday 11–8
Pitmasters: Esteban Hernandez and Ruben Angel
Method: Hickory in indirect-heat brick pits
Year opened: 1935