In Nashville, chef Michael Hanna started making his very specific style of pizza—sfincione, a pillowy soft, cheese-filled, breadcrumb-doused delight—under the name St. Vito Focacceria during the pandemic. Well-documented on social media, Hanna was making just a handful of pizzas at the beginning, but the business skyrocketed when he got a supportive thumbs up from his peers, like chefs Trevor Moran of Locust and Andy Little of Josephine, among others.
Hanna’s dough is unique in that it’s an adaptation between Italian pizza dough and Spanish ciabatta—it is 100-percent hydrated, naturally leavened, and fermented through a long, cold bulk method. He then incorporates fontina cheese into the dough before it bakes, making for bite after cheesy, comforting bite.
After a long stretch of pop-ups, plus a hiatus, St. Vito Focacceria soft opened this weekend in the Gulch (inside the former Colts Chocolates building). The menu includes his classic sfincione recipes, as well as several larger plates, which put an emphasis on vegetables and thoughtful proteins. Earlier this spring, we sat down with Hanna, a born chatter, to hear more about the many influences that got him here.
Family Influence at St. Vito Focacceria:
“My dad is old-school South: For generations, we’ve been farming in the Arkansas Delta. You know, he grew up meat and potatoes. No ethnicity besides cornbread, grains, and fried pork chops. And then my mother, who was the oldest of five and the only girl, came from an immigrant family that came through New Orleans, so deep Sicilian roots. In my mom’s house, it was always something Sicilian. In my dad’s, it was very Southern food. Growing up, I was very aware that I was from these two different families. Food was always a really big deal.”
“From my grandmother, I have memories of this tomato bread that stuck with me. And there’s a place in Dallas (where my grandfather had a deli) called Jimmy’s Food Store and they know everyone in my family and I remember seeing [sfincione] there. I started researching it in Giorgio Locatelli’s book Made in Sicily, and found out it was like a celebration, like, high street pizza. I kind of gussied up the traditional recipe—which has lots of anchovies and onions. I wanted to go a different route, so I did a pan pizza and added fontina and smoked mozzarella right into the dough. It’s this crossbreed of like a Northeast tomato bread and then something Sicilian.”
On His Competitive Edge:
“I was always into sports and really competitive. Once I got out of high school, I needed some real structure, and I naturally gravitated to the kitchen—all of my uncles were chefs and I love to cook. But I viewed it as competition, and you know, being 19, 20, you’re told you have to have your whole life planned out so I was like, well, this is what I’m good at. And I got really serious about it. My uncle, the best piece of advice he gave me was, ‘Get yourself into the best possible place and learn. Screw culinary school, find a mentor.’ So that’s what I set out to do.
“I think that the competitiveness, plus a fear of failing, put me in this mindset of like, every single kitchen I went into, I just wanted to outwork everyone, to absolutely crush everybody—and when I become the best, I’d leave. I’ve grown out of that now, though. I’ve learned.”
St. Vito Foccaceria’s Space and Menu:
“[St. Vito Focacceria is] dark and sexy. There’s a place in Rome that I love that’s really badass, with just a sign that says ‘vino and olio.’ [St. Vito’s is] small and there’s not a drinking bar, just a pizza bar with 13 seats that look into the kitchen. There’s a banquette on one wall and it’s lots of woods, everywhere. No reservations, first come, first serve.
“[The menu] is super small, even dialed back from what we’ve done before. So, three pizzas, probably three or so vegetable-driven sides, a nice green salad, some sandwiches during lunch, and a protein set up, so like chicken cacciatore but not the traditional Italian American version, more of a half chicken braised in wine, with onions and all that good stuff, maybe with a bowl of crusty potatoes. There’s all these permutations on menus now, with umami and koji, which is great, but it’s like, can you roast a really good chicken? Or do a perfect bowl of risotto? The basics in simple food can be really hard to do—but when it’s done right, there’s nothing better in the world.”
St. Vito Focacceria Opening Menu
Ragusano, Sun-dried Tomato
Lardo, Pane Civraxiu, Bitter Honey
Olive Schiacciate, Pickled Raisin, Celery
Bottarga Pate, Sesame Pane Carasau
Squid, Fregola, Saffron, Burnt Scapes
Porchetta, Patata Agrodolce, Clamzanella – shareable for 2 persons
Classic Vito (topped with tomato, pecorino, seasoned breadcrumbs, oregano)
Potato Sfincione (topped with potato cream, lemon, seasoned breadcrumbs, and roasted potatoes)
Verdue Alla Crema
Almond Sorbet, Italian Ice
Rum Baba, Vanilla, Rum
At the Table
A Locals’ Guide to Nashville Restaurants
Chad Newton and Gracie Nguyen of East Side Banh Mi share their ultimate guide to Nashville, with a special consideration for anyone with their dogs in tow.
In the Field
10 Recently Opened (and Soon-to-Open) Restaurants Around the South
Check out these 10 recently opened and soon-to-open restaurants from Miami to Louisville, with Lebanese mezze to rustic Italian food and Spanish vermouth bars.
In the Field
New Restaurants in Tennessee
In the Local Palate’s New Restaurants Issue, editor-in-chief and Nashville resident Erin Byers Murray gives an overview of the new restaurants open in Tennessee.
New Restaurants in Arkansas
New Restaurants in South Carolinaby Emily Havener
10 Restaurant Openings You Can’t Miss This Summer
12 New Restaurants in Louisianaby Beth D’Addono
New Restaurants in Floridaby Lauren Titus
more from Dining Out
A First Look at House of Marigold’s Menu
A First Look at Bar La Fête in Birmingham
A First Look at Greenville’s First Dim Sum Restaurant
A First Look at Little D’s
A First Look at Vern’s Menu