Houston BBQ Restaurant Pizzitola’s Marks 88 Years With Celebration & New Dishes
Pizzitola’s Bar-B-Que at 1703 Shepherd, Houston’s oldest barbecue restaurant — and also named a Texas Treasure by the Texas Historical Commission — is celebrating an incredible 88 years of business the week of Monday, July 24. John and Leila Davis, an African-American husband and wife team, opened it in 1935 as Shepherd Drive Bar-B-Q at the intersection of Shepherd and Long.
As it was during segregation, only Black people could dine inside this Black-owned business. Whites could dine at outside picnic tables or take food to go — as long as they brought their own pots and jars as containers. According to general manager Tim Taylor, as recently as 2020, someone brought their own pot.
Leila Davis was also one of the unsung lady pitmasters of Texas. “This was the 1930s, 40s and 50s, so Leila Davis didn’t get any credit, but people said she’d be running the pits too,” said Taylor. Daniel Vaughn of Texas Monthly elaborates, “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.” The Davises relocated to the current location due in part to the construction of I-10.
After John’s death, the Davis family sold the barbecue restaurant to Jerry Pizzitola, and the business has carried that Italian last name ever since. “I kid you not — at least once a week, someone comes in here looking for pizza. I’m not sure how much bigger we can make the sign out front that says ‘Bar-B-Que’” says Taylor.
He was previously Jerry Pizzitola’s managing partner and — with the exception of a four-year break when he mostly worked as a manager and operations director at Beaver’s on Westheimer (now closed) — has been at Pizzitola’s since 2006. It was owner Willie Madden who drew Taylor back into the business. Sadly, he died in 2022, but Taylor has continued on as a familiar face of the business. “I love the customers, I love the employees, I love the history and continuity of the place,” Taylor said.
A highlight of the week will be when Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner will visit Pizzitola’s for a “Rib-On-Cutting” to mark the 88th anniversary. It happens on Wednesday, July 26, 2023 at 1:30 p.m., and representatives of all four families who have ever owned the place are participating in the ceremony. This includes current owner James Maida, who took ownership in 2022 after the passing of Madden, who was his business partner. After the ceremony, and throughout the anniversary week, guests will be treated to samples of St. Louis-style ribs, smoked brisket meatballs and Mama Raley’s Banana Pudding.
Additionally, Pizzitola’s is debuting a brand-new meat offering for the anniversary week. The Contender is a 3 ½ to 4 pound smoked beef shank. The base of meat at the end of the shank is so huge that it’s served standing upright. Taylor envisions a group of three or four guests ordering one to share — or it can make a mighty meal for one hungry soul. Also being introduced is a Smoked Chicken Thigh Sandwich. The chicken is boneless, skinless and enveloped in a sweet and spicy glaze.
Along with a few, long-tenured owners, there’s been a similar progression of pitmasters. Second only to John Davis, Pizzitola’s longest-tenured pitmaster was Carlton Gould, who worked there for 30 years. Gould passed away seven years ago.
After Gould’s death, Pizzitola’s muddled on for a time without a pitmaster. Taylor says that was a mistake, as it led to a lack of consistency.
These days, the pitmaster is Eudel Hernandez. He, along with Taylor, utilized the slow-business period of the COVID-19 pandemic
“COVID was the best thing to happen to our business, and I know that sounds crazy,” said Taylor. “It destroyed our to-go orders. A large part of our business was catering to offices downtown and the Galleria. We sat thinking, ‘Okay, we lost our bread-and-butter. We lost our dining room customers — all these lawyers, oil guys and real estate guys used to come and eat. So now what do we do?” The decision was to take the opportunity to hire a new pitmaster — Eudel Hernandez, previously of Last Concert Café — and modernize the menu. Pizzitola’s meats and sides now live up much better to the expectations of today’s Houston barbecue lovers, who have grown used to an influx of Central Texas-style offerings from newer establishments such as Truth BBQ and Pinkerton’s Barbecue. These days, even the cucumbers and onions are pickled in-house, and the salad dressings are made-from-scratch, too.
Pizzitola’s is unique, and part of that is due to its age and structure of the historic building. The kitchen isn’t very big, and that may be an understatement. Taylor calls it a “postage stamp”. The sum total of cooking equipment is the wood-fired indoor pits (John Davis’s handmade, brick pit pits would not be allowed indoors in more modern buildings), an outdoor smoker and an induction burner reserved for making desserts.
That means everything, except the desserts, has to be cooked on the pits. This is a situation where a limitation is turned into an advantage, and if you don’t believe me, go try the Smoked Four-Cheese Mac & Cheese and the Cabbage With Bacon and Sausage. It’s really hard to find a satisfying, truly cheesy mac and cheese at restaurants, and Pizzitola’s is the best I’ve had in recent memory. I ordered the cabbage so I could assuage my meat-loving guilt by eating a green vegetable. My expectation was modest. The cabbage was actually so meaty and smoky that I polished it off first — even before the mac and cheese, and long before my substantial portion of moist brisket. The texture, too, was perfect. The cabbage still had some chew to it, but softness, too. I order jalapeño and cheese sausage anywhere I see it, and the one Pizzitola’s sources from Holmes Smokehouse is a treat.
However, when it comes to updating the menu of a venerable restaurant, proceed with caution. The trick is preserving customer favorites while also making appropriate upgrades and adding new dishes. Hernandez and Taylor have struck an excellent balance. Pizzitola’s is best known for its St. Louis-cut smoked ribs. Those aren’t going anywhere, but they have improved thanks to bringing in meatier cuts. The new additions, though — a brisket burger on an Ashcraft Bakery bun and Brisket Enchiladas, both featuring brisket ground in-house, are winning a new fan base. (Note that the enchiladas are available only on Fridays.)
Those aren’t the only dishes lending new excitement to the menu. Saturdays offer Barbecue Breakfast with two each of pork ribs and scrambled eggs, pepper smoked sausage, a scratch-made jalapeño and cheddar biscuit and smoky salsa; and The Brisket Biscuit — also featuring that jalapeño and cheddar biscuit filled with chopped brisket, a fried egg, smoky salsa with Pit Potatoes alongside. There are also $2 domestic beers.
There are very few restaurants that make it to the 20-year mark, much less 88. Despite it perhaps taking a little longer than it should have to catch up to where barbecue is at today, there’s no denying the enduring charm that keeps Houstonians coming back. “This place is as much about the history of the city as it is a viable business,” said Taylor.
Pizzitola’s Bar-B-Que is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m.
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.