If you’re craving what Texas Monthly has called the state’s best brisket, then it’s a quick two hour trip to barbecue bliss in Lexington, Texas, 121 miles from Houston.
For Jerry Pizzitola, owner of Pizzitola's Bar-B-Cue, that first visit to Lexington was an interminable drive home. Pizzitola and his partner Tim Taylor had joined a group of Houston barbecue aficionados on a tour of Hill Country barbecue spots back in January. The outing -- a three car caravan -- was led by J.C. Reid, a frequent contributor to 29-95 who is known for his appreciation of all things barbecue.
The group arrived at Snow’s BBQ about 9:30 a.m. to find a long line and it wasn’t long before the day’s allotment of brisket was gone.
“On the ride back from Snow’s, you could see the smoke coming out of Jerry’s ears,” Taylor said.
“I was mad,” Pizzitola said after tasting Kerry Bexley and Tootsie Tomanetz’s brisket. I thought brisket is brisket. I didn’t know there was so much room to improve.”
It was a barbecue epiphany for a man who has earned a good living for more than 30 years by cooking meat.
After tasting the brisket, “we sat out back at Snow’s for a couple of hours,” Taylor said. “Jerry was like a CIA agent taking in all the details. He was asking lot of questions.”
“(Bexley and Tomanetz) started sharing information,” Pizzitola said. “I wanted to understand the wow factor.”
With one of Snow’s frozen briskets tucked in the car, Pizzitola and Taylor began the drive back to Houston and formulating a plan of action.
“(Jerry) took it as a personal challenge,” Taylor said. “He started working 24/7.”
And for the past six months, Pizzitola and his three long-time pitmasters have been tweaking their already popular brisket.
Of course, Taylor isn’t surprised at Pizzitola’s tenacity. The epiphany at a Lexington picnic table wasn’t the first time in their partnership that Pizzitola had pursued a better bite.
“Jerry reacts to what customers are saying,” Taylor said, “so when we kept hearing about ‘burnt ends’ in the dining room, we started investigating.”
The investigation led them to Kansas City, where the burnt ends of a brisket are considered the best part of barbecue.
After trying the barbecue at Arthur Bryant’s and Gates, two widely-popular KC barbecue spots, the pair sat for hours with general manager Case Dornan of Jack Stack Barbecue and talked ribs, as well as burnt ends.
So what changes have been made since that fateful January visit to Snow’s?
First thing was a change in Pizzitola’s meat purveyor, as well a change in the size of the brisket itself. Instead of 14 to 15-pound brisket, Pizzitola now buys 10 pound briskets. And it’s trimmed brisket. That’s new, too.
And then there’s the whole prep and cooking.
Pizzitola and his three pitmasters have spent hours experimenting. Wrapping briskets at different intervals, logging times and temperatures. All just to perfect a bite of brisket, to achieve “the wow.”
Pizzitola says his longtime pitmasters, many of whom have been with him since the beginning, have been open to his pursuit of perfection.
“They have a lot of pride. And it wasn’t like what we were doing was bad,” said Pizzitola, who as a boy ate at Shepherd Drive Barbecue where John Davis was the pitmaster. Pizzitola bought the business from the Davis family in 1983.
“It’s been a rocky road -- this quest for perfection,” Taylor said. “But then we started hearing from customers.”
Both said the reviews have been positive, but there’s still work to be done.
“It’s better,” Pizzitola said of his brisket, “but it’s not where we want it to be. Not now. Not yet.”
Pizzitola’s will be featured on a “Best of the Bayou” episode of the Cooking Channel’s Road Trip with G. Garvin at 8 p.m. on July 24. Pizzitola’s senior pitmaster Carlton Gould will offer tips for backyard barbecuers.
Pizzitola's Bar-B-Cue: 1703 Shepherd Dr., 713-227-2283