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A Morning Spent with Jerry Pizzitola and David Reynosa of Pizzitola's Barbecue

David Reynosa checks his chickens
David Reynosa checks his chickens

Scenes from Pizzitola's[Gary Wise/flickr]

Houston has hundreds of barbecue options, but Pizzitola's is the oldest continuously serving barbecue restaurant in the city. When owner Jerry Pizzitola and pit master David Reynosa invited me to spend a Saturday morning with them, I was excited to learn what this restaurant does to have been so successful for so long. After only a few steps in the door, even those who are oblivious to the restaurant's rich history are bound to notice the decades worth of pictures and articles that are displayed on its broken-in walls. Whether one thinks the decor makes the restaurant look like a museum or grandma's kitchen, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it is highly revered by all.

Front of the House
As I approached the locked front door of Pizzitola's several hours before they were set to open, Mr. Jerry Pizzitola greeted me. As hospitable as could be, he offered me a cup of coffee and directed me to have a seat at the restaurant's bar that was covered with the morning paper. While the overturned chairs reminded me that I was sitting in a closed restaurant, I couldn't help but feel like I was engaging in typical breakfast conversation with my father in my parents' home. After getting to know each other a little better, he immediately started explaining Pizzitola's wondrous history.

In the 1930s, an African American man named John Davis and his wife Leila started Pizzitola's predecessor, Shepherd Drive Bar-B-Q. Originally at the corner of Shepherd and I-10, the restaurant relocated down the street when the interstate expanded. Jerry explained to me that he grew up eating at Shepherd Drive Bar-B-Q with his parents. In a twist on the era's Jim Crow conventions, in the restaurant's early years the owners only allowed other African Americans to dine-in at the restaurant. They served white people via the back entrance, which customers can still see if they examine the building. After the Davis' passed away, they left the restaurant to their daughter. In the early 1980s, Jerry took over operations and changed the name to what it is today: Pizzitola's BBQ.

As Jerry continued to share anecdotes, I really started to distill the true meaning of Pizzitola's. Of course the food is important, the restaurant wouldn't still be open if it didn't serve good food. However, the true essence of Pizzitola's comes from its traditional dining experience. For example, no other barbecue restaurant in the city provides table service and cloth napkins. Jerry explained assertively, "If you just want to walk through a line and get a tray of meat with your buddies, you can go somewhere else." Just as I started to process the rich and fruitful history, David summoned me to the pits.

At the Pit
I really had no idea what to expect working in a pit. Jerry instructed me to wear close-toed shoes, jeans, a long-sleeve shirt and a hat. Even though that's a lot of clothing for an already-hot July morning in Houston, I did as I was told. The kitchen looks normal at first glance, but once I walked through the thick plastic flaps to the barbecue pits I saw where the real magic happens.

I quickly observed that Pizzitola's has two, 12-by-6 foot brick BBQ pits (in case you don't have your calculator handy, that's 144 square feet) that sit parallel to each other on either side of the kitchen. Aside from the notable brick walls, the pits have a wood fire at the bottom of one side, iron grates for the meat and a huge metal top that opens and closes. As Jerry introduced me to David, he explained that indoor open BBQ pits are now considered illegal by the City of Houston. However, because of the restaurant's impressive age, they are exempt from having to comply with those regulations. In fact, Pizzitola's is the only BBQ restaurant in town permitted to operate an open pit.

To begin, David built a fire for the pit. As David gathered the wood, he explained that keeping a good flame and consistent temperature are essential to cooking with an open pit. Pizzitola's uses a blend of hickory and oak to maintain a constant temperature of approximately 240 degrees Fahrenheit. Hickory tends to burn extremely hot and fast, while the oak burns more slowly, with a less intense heat. If the pit gets too hot, David spreads the wood out to create a less intense flame. When the temperature gets too low, he adds more logs to build up the heat. Maintaining the proper temperature is a delicate art, but David's title doesn't have the word "master" in it for nothing.

Pizzitola's mainly uses the pit to smoke brisket, whole chickens and slabs of ribs. Before the meat enters the pit, David seasons it with a simple salt and pepper rub. Because the brisket takes 12 to 14 hours to cook, Pizzitola's cook them the day before they are served. The chicken and the ribs both cook for about 2 hours and are served the same day they're prepared.

Each of the pits has three main sections: the section closest to the fire, the middle section, and the sleeper (the section farthest away from the fire). The brisket cooks in the sleeper the whole time, but David keeps a constant watch and rotates the different pieces throughout the day to ensure they all receive an even amount of heat. The ribs and whole chickens start in the section closest to the fire and are slowly shifted away from the flame until they are done.

Proving the adage that barbecue is more art than science, David doesn't set a timer when he cooks. He's a professional; he just knows when the meat is ready to be shifted. Although I asked him how he knows when something's ready, the truth is he is an artist and he just knows. While the process is slow and arduous, it is obvious how much David enjoys what he does. As the lunch hour grew closer, he opened the pit to check the chicken. He used an oversized fork to lift one of the birds up and squeezed one of its legs with two fingers. He told me it was done.

As David removed the different cuts of meat from the pit, the Saturday lunch crowd started to trickle in. Since David offered to keep an eye on the brisket for the rest of the day, my shift was over. After just a few short hours with Jerry and David, I saw that Pizzitola's takes just as much pride in its history and dining experience as it does in the food.

The Cooking Channel's Road Trip With G. Garvin will feature Pizzitola's on July 24 at 8:00 p.m.

--Rachel Brill

· Pizzitola's Barbecue [Official Site]