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How Jerry Pizzitola Went From Backyard Grilling Enthusiast To Lifelong Pitmaster

Pizzitola's pit-style barbecue is a delicious relic of Houston's past

Since 1901, the open brick pits at 1703 Shepherd Drive have been churning out some of the city’s best barbecue. Before it became Pizzitola’s, the building housed Shepherd Drive Barbecue, where owner Jerry Pizzitola would frequently bring clients for a meal after he’d gotten his first grown-up job.

"My dad brought me there originally, and then I would take my customers there" says Pizzitola. "There weren’t many barbecue places back then, not a hundred of them like there are now, and John Davis at Shepherd Drive was known for making the best brisket in Houston." For 45 years, Davis prepared traditional East Texas barbecue, originated by African-Americans after the Civil War, on his characteristic open brick pits.

At some point, Pizzitola revisited the restaurant and found that things weren’t the way that he’d remembered. "I went in one day and got to asking what was going on, and they told me that John Davis had died," he says. "I talked to his daughter Lois, and she’d leased it to a cousin who didn’t really know what he was doing. I introduced myself to her, told her I might be interested, and she called me three or four months later asking me if I wanted to lease the property."

Pizzitola had never worked in a barbecue establishment, but he had spent some time in the food service business. His father owned Regal Food Service, a company that offered packaged lunches and sandwiches in its catering wagons. He’d also grown up visiting his father, a grilling enthusiast and barbecue lover, on the holidays, where he learned the tricks of backyard grilling.

He’d also always been, as he says, a "barbecue freak." "I couldn’t pass a barbecue place without stopping," says Pizzitola. "Years ago, I’d go to Lockwood Barbecue with my dad. That was our favorite. I know I’m also a pyromaniac – most of us are in this business – and I’d watch my dad as he cooked over charcoal in a backyard pit."

Then, in 1983, Pizzitola found himself in the barbecue business, with only his experience as a backyard griller to guide him. Quickly, he learned one of John Davis’ most important barbecue secrets.

"If I was having friends or family over for barbecue, I’d get up at about 4 a.m. to put my brisket on so it would be ready around 12," he says. "Then I found out that John Davis cooked his briskets the day before. He’d put them on in the morning, and take them off about 6 or 7 o’ clock at night, and leave them out. The next morning, he’d put them on the pit and warm them up."

When Pizzitola was first getting started, open brick pits weren’t particularly uncommon. But, as technology in the smoking world advanced, a number of smokehouses transitioned into using "oiler-style" smokers, which are commonly found in even the best barbecue joints. Now, open air pits are technically banned in Houston, but because Pizzitola’s had been in operation so long, they were grandfathered in under the law.

Pizzitola even admits that it would be easier to use oiler-style smokers, but the open pit process does produce a slightly different barbecue. "I would personally prefer those pits, they’re easier and you don’t have to be as attentive," says Pizzitola. "I have trained guys who are constantly keeping an eye on the fire to make sure it’s at the right temperature, flipping the meat around, and making sure it all looks good."

Now, after more than 30 years in the business, Pizzitola has perfected his winning formula. At lunch, you can still find this establishment packed to the gills with businesspeople having meetings and regulars enjoying the favorites they’ve been eating since childhood. "We’ve just been flippin’ ribs," says Pizzitola. "Thank goodness we’ve got customers who still like us."

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