Highlandtown locals are used to seeing Sam White behind the bar at Gnocco, where he is usually shaking up Italian cocktails or uncorking worldly bottles of wine at the white marble bar. But regulars shouldn’t be surprised to see him sweating in front of a black steel smoker this summer.
Last month, White and his longtime friend Kevin James launched Scalawags Pit Meat—a side project focusing on barrel-smoked pit beef, turkey, chicken, and other carnivorous classics.
“It’s been fun going from a fine-dining thing to doing something more laid-back and hanging outside,” White says. “Pit beef is such a classic Maryland dish. It’s interesting to learn more about it and how people like their sandwiches—with horseradish or without. Onions or no onions. It’s really personal.”
The duo first started experimenting with smoking meats after James received a barrel smoker as a wedding present a few years ago. Since then, they have been testing recipes in his backyard, mixing different woods, proteins, and marinades.
“The pit barrel isn’t really a smoker and it isn’t really a grill,” James explains. “It’s this weird in-between cooking machine. But it’s pretty easy to use and all of the sudden I found myself firing it up every other weekend and turning out really tasty stuff. It really all started out with us having fun while drinking Natty Boh in the backyard.”
In July, Scalawags hosted its inaugural pop-up at Monument City Brewing in Highlandtown—eventually selling out of pit beef sandwiches, pork loin, turkey breast, and smoked corn with clarified butter. In the future, the duo is looking forward to adding ribs, whole chicken, and smoked bacon BLTs to the menu.
James says that perfecting the smoking technique is all about timing, temperature, and choosing the right wood chips.
“The way the environment is in the barrel itself makes for a really delicious product,” he says. “The juices from the meat actually drip down into the charcoal. When you open up the lid there’s just this mushroom cloud of smoke and deliciousness that really takes the cake.”
The next event for Scalawags—which was named after James’ former gig working on the Urban Pirates ship—will be at Gnocco on Thursday, August 23. James will serve up hearty sandwiches that White will pair with whiskey cocktails from Republic Restoratives Distillery in Washington, D.C.
The team is also looking forward to partnering with Old Line Spirits, another one of Gnocco’s neighbors in Highlandtown, to host a third pop-up and put more of a personal touch on some of the smoked meats.
“The distillers from Old Line reached out and offered to let us use wood chips from their whiskey barrels,” James says. “I was floored because it’s local and it adds a certain kind of flavor that you’re not getting anywhere else. It’s typical Smaltimore.”