How It All Started
As with most historical tales, this one has its share of twists and turns including how a barbecue joint with deep African American roots wound up with an Italian name. It all started back in 1935 when the husband and wife team, John and Leila Davis, opened their modest BBQ restaurant called Shepherd Drive BBQ.
Jerry Pizzitola first visited the restaurant as a boy, accompanying his father during the Roosevelt era. “My dad was a barbecue connoisseur and he favored the East Texas-style of cooking meats on an open pit,” Jerry says. “We regularly made the rounds of what he and a lot of other people thought were the best in town —Matt Garner’s, Lockwood Barbecue, Green’s on Almeda and, my favorite, Shepherd Drive BBQ.”
Old Order Counter
The Davis’ ran a tight ship, never opening before the clock struck 12 and only serving African American customers for sit-down service inside the restaurant. Whites knew to go around to the back door to get their food, which they took to-go or ate at picnic benches outside. Remember, this was during the Jim Crow era.
Years went by and, while Houston entered the space age and a freeway cut through the old neighborhood, Shepherd Drive BBQ continued to stick to its old ways serving some of the best pit-fired briskets in town.
Willie Madden & Tim Taylor
The sausage comes from a Czech sausage maker in the Hill Country; the barbecue sauce is thin and spicy, and the ribs and brisket are among the best in the city.
Today, Jerry has retired and has passed the torch to a good friend and veteran restauranteur, Willie Madden.
A Houston native, Madden says he’s known the Pizzitola family most of his life. A chance encounter with Pizzitola’s former business partner, Tim Taylor, prompted Madden to inquire about the possibility of purchasing the restaurant. With Jerry Pizzitola getting older and not able to spend as much time at the restaurant, the two men struck a deal.
As one of Houston’s oldest restaurants, Pizzitola’s operates slightly different than newer barbecue joints. It still offers old-fashioned, cloth napkin, sit-down service, stays open for lunch and dinner, and never runs out of food.
“I don’t ever want it to be a place where people are waiting in line and we run out of food before the day’s over,” Madden says. “I want to be busy. I want it to be a profitable venture, but not at the expense of having fun and serving great food. That’s what it’s all about.”