Dark, seductive, and hidden in a quiet corner of The Gulch, there is a magical intimacy between you Sant Vito FocaseriaChef Michael Hanna’s recently opened restaurant.

He embodies the chef’s vibrant personality, Sicilian heritage, commitment to seasonal cooking, and strengthening community. Enter. You’ll find comfortable seating at the banquettes, as well as tables and chairs lining the left of the dining room, all in full view of the open kitchen. Slip into a chair at the chef’s table for a close-up photo. You’ll see the baker’s rack loaded with Hanna’s signature focaccia bread, most of which are destined to become sfincione – the wonderfully light, spongy pizza squares beloved in Sicily and Palermo. At the work tables, you can see Hanna and his team ladling the lemon-scented cream sauce over potato svincioni; Assemble the triple-layered sandwiches charcoal-toasted and salsa verde, and slice up a sample of heirloom tomatoes, dusting with fennel pollen and fresh herbs. Instead of a bar, near the front door is a reception desk where staff prepare cocktails (think caper-infused gin martinis) and house-made sodas (the herbs and berries are as beautiful as they are refreshing), and where people can collect their orders to-go.

During a recent luncheon, we were amazed by St. Vito’s comings and goings and the camaraderie. Samantha Lamb from The Farm and Fiddle arrived carrying a box of cantaloupes. Hannah cut one piece, liked the taste, and shared the slices with the guests at the table. It’s a variety of Tuscan watermelon at peak ripeness, the kind you can enjoy all the way to the rind. An assistant brought over a bag of Jimmy Nardellos, a dark red Italian pepper with a complex sweetness. In the back of the kitchen, one of his chefs prepared octopus in preparation for a collaborative dinner Hannah was hosting with Chef Colby Rasavong of Bad Idea.

“Whether at lunch or dinner, the sfincione will always be the centerpiece and constant. That’s what sets Sant Vito apart,” says Hanna. “Our dinner menu has[also]become very seafood-oriented. mackerel. swordfish. crab. We are, in the end, attached to Sicily.”

He changes the menu daily, based on product availability. Throughout the summer months, you can expect those gorgeous tomatoes. “I like to offer a slice of each of three different heirlooms,” he notes. Lima bean salad with lemon vinaigrette, red wine, and garlic shavings includes diced cucumber for extra crunch. “I get such good young animals from the Hancock family farm in Springfield,” he says with a smile. Hanna laments that much of this year’s peach crop was damaged by the freeze, but he has discovered overlooked quality nectarines to take their place.

In the far corner of the kitchen, you might notice a massive mixer, the workhorse used to make the sandwich bread and focaccia that launched its pre-opening pop-up success. For the latter, Hanna links the highly hydrated dough with pieces of fontina, which melt into the bread, adding a savory element to his sfincione. No matter what you order, you’ll always want to add a square of their Sicilian pie to share. The Classic Fito (crushed tomatoes, pecorino, oregano, and toasted breadcrumbs) is always a crowd-pleaser, and the potatoes are, quite simply, a revelation. Innovative sandwiches – try the gbagole, bread smeared with lemon aioli and stuffed with hot capicola pork, pickled onions and shaved iceberg. Other noteworthy meals include mortadella with smoked mozzarella and pickled artichokes, and his unmissable version of the beloved BLT.

It’s no wonder Hannah’s baking prowess is spreading throughout the restaurant community. The Polly brothers use his cakes at the newly opened Iggy’s Italian Restaurant, and once Hanna can ramp up his baking schedule, Julia Jaksic of Café Roze and Roze Pony is ready to order 80 loaves a week.

From pop-ups to brick-and-mortar, Hannah’s journey has been quite the journey, indeed a pandemic success story. He’s come a long way from those uncertain days of baking his home and selling it all out, and he sees it all through the lens of learning, with gratitude. He looks forward to establishing St. Vito Focacceria as a mainstay of the neighborhood, as The Gulch continues to build upward. (605 Palace St., stvitosnashville.com)

(Marks for translation) Nancy Vieno

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