It took years for this pitmaster to find his place in the Texas scene

Stefan Nedwiecki’s detour to becoming part owner of a barbecue in tiny Van Alstyne, about an hour north of Dallas, was full of traps and doubts. The Pleasant Grove native of Dallas spent his teenage years in Rochester, New York, but returned home to Texas after leaving the Marines in 1999. “Being a Texan, I really missed barbecue,” he said. He started smoking in his Plano backyard while running a landscape company. After entering a barbecue contest in 2010 (although Nedwiecki describes everything he did as “terrible”), he picked up the bug. “It started to get in the way of my landscaping business,” he said. So he turned it off to focus on the barbecue.

“Everyone either laughed at me or said I was stupid,” Nedwiecki said of the reaction to his decision. He wondered if everyone was right until he served what he thought was the perfect brisket at a pop-up event. Will Fleischman, Lockhart’s master smoker at the time, tried it and was impressed. “It’s still the best I’ve ever cooked,” said Nedvetsky. When a second Lockhart smokehouse opened in Plano in 2014, Fleischman asked him to join. Nedwiecki worked there and at Smoke in Plano, as he calls it, briefly before he got his own food truck. He called it Pit Commander Barbecue, which was the name of his team. Nedwiecki chose this name because people said his long beard made him look like Phil “Duck Commander” Robertson from duck dynasty reality show. The “pit” part refers to both the old brick pit built by his father, who was a bricklayer, in his childhood home, and the mosh pit he helped drive into a frenzy while playing guitar in the heavy metal band Lethargy during his days in Rochester. In any case, he said that the name is much easier to pronounce than Nedwetzky Barbecue.

Pit Commander struggled to make a name for himself in the DFW scene, so in the winter of 2016 Nedwiecki loaded up some Texas oak mailboxes and headed to Fort Myers, Florida. His sister lived there and selfishly wished there was a good Texas barbecue nearby. “That’s where it really took off,” Nedwiecki said. His month-long visit turned into six months. But the Texas pull was strong, and he returned in the summer. It was then that Yolanda Russotti, a woman he knew from Rochester, came to visit him. “The first time I tried his brisket, I thought, ‘Will you marry me?’ she said with a laugh. A month later, she moved to Texas. They got married and are now raising a joint little daughter.

The family alternates between Florida and Texas, as well as serving barbecues and making a barbecue pizza called Texapolitan Pizza. In 2019, Nedwiecki and Russotti found what they believe will be their permanent barbecue home in the east Texas town of Murchison, but they closed their restaurant there in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Nedwiecki couldn’t find a barbecue to hire, so he worked at Chipotle during the day and at Pizza Hut at night to make ends meet. The couple returned to Florida dejected, thinking they had had enough of trying to make it in Texas barbecue.

Then, out of nowhere, the Texas State Fair appeared repeatedly in Nedwiecki’s dreams in Florida. “I kept waking up in the middle of the night smelling the fair,” he said. Last year, he checked the fair’s website and saw that it was accepting applications from new suppliers. He submitted Texapolitan and he was accepted. The couple took this as a sign to return to Texas. After receiving positive feedback from the fair organizers, the duo put up a deposit for a $30,000 wood-fired pizza oven from Italy. A month after returning to Plano, they received word that the BBQ at Van Alstyne Center had closed and a space became available. They took it and opened the Pit Commander BBQ last July.

Spread from Pit Commander BBQ.
Spread from Pit Commander Barbecue.Photography by Daniel Vaughn

When the couple started building the business, they had to close the restaurant so they could serve at the fair in September. They made an average of 280 pizzas a day with freshly smoked pork belly for 24 consecutive days. They are grateful to the folks at Smokey John’s Bar-B-Que, a longtime fair supplier, for acting as their mentors and helping them through the process. Now they can’t wait for the fair to resume this year, but in the meantime, there are plenty of barbecues to make.

The Pit Commander Barbecue is open Thursday through Saturday for lunch. Last weekend was the most successful, with early sales on Saturday. I was there on Thursday for the second time. The first one, back in November, was a mixture of superiority and disappointment, but the restaurant was running on a broken line in the kitchen. This trip was so much better and I finally got to taste that pork belly burned from the famous State Fair pizza. They were perfectly cooked, richly seasoned and glazed. Salt and sugar competed for dominance with a clean smoky flavor. I actually preferred the thick slice of pork belly, which Pit Commander sells as Bacon Brisket, a clear homage to Fort Worth’s Dayne’s Craft Barbecue. It was thinner than the burnt ends and seemed to melt on my tongue.

Nedwiecki tries several brisket suppliers to find the right amount and quality of fat. He thought the lean part of what he smoked last weekend was dry, and I agreed, although it was quite tender, with a nice streak of melted fat on top. This week there will be a new brand of beef in the smokehouse.

Nedvetsky learned how to make sausage at an old German butcher’s shop in Florida and uses those skills in a restaurant. I liked the combination of jalapeno and cheese, which burst from the juice when I took a bite of it. Ask for it uncut to get the most out of the experience. There were a lot of jalapeno pieces, but the spiciness was quite modest. The bacon-wrapped jalapenos brought a little more warmth and the bacon was nicely crispy. The tender pork ribs got their fair share of rubs and splatters of sauce, but the flavors dissipated in the foil. I was planning on trying pulled pork but it wasn’t on the menu. “We couldn’t sell a cigarette butt to save our lives,” Russotti said.

She makes all sides, although most of them are Nedwiecki’s recipes. The potato salad was a little soupy and spicy, just like his parents like to make. I liked the crunchy salad and the sweet broccoli salad was a good way to snack on something healthy. The macaroni and cheese made with creamy queso was delicious, but my favorite was the pinto beans in a savory broth with chunks of tomato, onion and brisket.

Russotti also makes all of the sandwich buns from scratch. She uses a simple Austrian-style white bread dough to make knotted buns. To me, it looked like a pretzel bun, albeit a paler color. It was perfect for the daily specialty hamburger of thick smoked brisket with American cheese, barbecue sauce and pickles. The signature dessert is an Italian love cake, the recipe of which belongs to the Russotti family. To give it a Texas BBQ feel, Nedwiecki added bananas to the mix, creating a banana love cake and a potential family rift due to fiddling with the recipe. I liked it, although not as sweet as I expected.

Van Alstyne is right in the middle of the Texas barbecue dead zone on US 75, and the Pit Commander Barbecue fills that void perfectly. When Nedwiecki and Russotti found the place, they hoped their establishment would become a community favorite, but they knew it would take time for word to spread. The business is slowly developing, but, according to Russotti, “we still bet on ourselves and believe in what we do.” If BBQ continues to flourish, the next step will be traditional Texas pizza. “Pizza is simpler and the profit margin is insanely higher,” Nedwiecki said, adding that barbecue cooking is more stressful than pizza cooking. So why not focus on pizza? “We still have to BBQ pizza,” he said, so they can schedule both. Russotti said it was also about building a solid foundation for their young daughter, who suffers from spina bifida. “We want to leave her something that will take care of her for the rest of her life, when we’re gone.” I think the community will get the job done, if only so that we can keep the barbecue family alive in Texas and beyond Florida.

Pete Commander BBQ
224 E. Jefferson, Van Alstyne
Telephone: 972-400-0234
Clock: Thursday – Saturday 11-3
Pitmaster: Stefan Nedvetsky
Method: Oak in an offset smokehouse
Opening year: 2022

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