The ribs remain the same
Historic Houston barbecue restaurant gets saucy with visionary new owner
A barbecue joint that traces its legacy back to the ’30s has a new owner. Veteran restaurateur Willie Madden recently purchased Pizzitola’s Bar-B-Cue from Jerry Pizzitola, Madden tells CultureMap.
A graduate of St. Thomas High School, 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 that finalized last week.
As one of Houston’s oldest restaurants, Pizzitola’s operates slightly differently than newer barbecue joints. It offers full service, stays open for lunch and dinner, and never runs out of food. Madden says he’s enjoyed meals at highly rated barbecue restaurants like 2M Smokehouse in San Antonio and Franklin Barbecue in Austin, but he’s not planning to replicate their business model.
“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. That’s what it’s all about.”
Madden, who once operated five locations of Texadelphia, has some changes in mind for the restaurant but knows that some aspects of Pizzitola's should remain the same.
“I’m keeping all the employees,” he says. “I’m never going to touch the ribs or the sauce. I may add a sauce, something darker and sweeter to have as an alternative.”
On the other hand, he sees an opportunity to upgrade the brisket and is open to changing the sausage. Madden thinks a chopped salad with smoked chicken or turkey could appeal to people, and he wants to add Frito pie. Expect new sides and desserts, too.
“I’m open for suggestions,” he says. “Everybody has an opinion about what they want. Mainly, it’s going to be the stuff I like that I want to share with my friends and family and they’ll share with their friends and family.”
Beverages will receive similar attention. Madden plans to swap canned sodas for a soda fountain and to expand the wine and beer selection, including adding draft beer. Acquiring a full mixed beverage license that would allow the restaurant to serve spirits and cocktails is also a possibility.
From a facilities perspective, Madden plans to repave the parking lot and add security lighting to make it feel safer at night. Inside, he’ll replace worn out ceiling tiles and make some other small tweaks to make the space more visually appealing. Pizzitola has given Madden permission to keep the restaurant’s antique bar in place for the immediate future, which will help the space maintain some of its old character.
“My interest is really in keeping a Houston institution around for my kids and grandkids,” he says. “I’m not naive enough to think that the regulars are going to keep the place going. I’ve got to do some things to attract a new crowd.”