Chef Michael Hanna revived sfincione-style pizza as a pandemic project, with a community-driven approach and fair labor practices.
What does a Nashville-based chef have in common with 16th-century Sicilian nuns? More than you might expect.
Michael Hanna has been serving up sfincione-style pizza under the St. Vito Focacceria banner since 2020. The dish dates back more than 500 years, when Catholic nuns were the authority in baking. The sisters of San Vito convent in Sicily developed a focaccia-like recipe topped with sauce and breadcrumbs and served from street carts to passers-by. Similarly, Hanna started St. Vito as a traveling pop-up concept. What started as a pandemic project is now a bonafide restaurant with a brick-and-mortar location set to open this month in Music City.
Hanna spent years honing his culinary skills in kitchens across Memphis and Nashville before launching his own business. Like many restaurant workers, he found himself without a job when COVID-19 shuttered dining rooms across the country. Having just been laid off and facing an uncertain future, he decided to start selling pizzas from his home.
“I always wanted to do something on my own, but it took a lot of time to develop the bravery and the courage to finally jump out there,” he says. “I remembered eating sfincione pizza as a child, and I remembered reading about its history in a cookbook. When the pandemic hit, it all clicked. I thought, ‘This is something that’s different enough to keep me on my toes creatively, but also simple, comforting, familiar, and rewarding enough for people right now.’”
Sfincione traditionally consists of a thick flatbread with tomato sauce, anchovies, cheese, and other toppings, all covered in a layer of toasted bread crumbs for a satisfying crunch.
“I wanted to take that and put my own character into it by making the dough very light and airy,” Hanna says. “I knew we had to have some sort of business model that was able to sell whole pizzas, so it couldn’t be too thick and heavy. What’s the point of selling a $30 whole pizza if you can only eat one slice of it?”
The base of his pizzas lies somewhere between traditional Italian pizza dough and Spanish ciabatta recipes. The dough is 100 percent hydrated, naturally leavened, and fermented through a long, cold bulk method. For the Classic Vito pizza, fontina cheese is incorporated into the dough before it’s baked and then topped with tomato, pecorino, seasoned bread crumbs, oregano, and more. A popular Potato Pizza combines the sfincione dough with potato cream, lemon, seasoned bread crumbs, and roasted potatoes.
Hanna recalls clearing out space in his kitchen, advertising on social media, plugging orders into a spreadsheet, and delivering them to customers who lined up on his driveway. It didn’t take long to outgrow those humble origins as word of mouth spread.
As St. Vito's fan base grew, Hanna moved the venture from his home to the basement of a food hall, selling pizzas from a side door in the evenings. From there the concept moved to a boutique hotel. Eventually it landed in Hathorne, an acclaimed local eatery founded by Nashville hospitality veteran John Stephenson.
“As we kept getting more popular, I kept thinking, ‘Okay, we’ll do this for a little bit longer,’” Hanna says. “Each time we moved around, we got better and better. It became really clear that what we were doing was important not only for the food scene here in Nashville, but for me, too. I was finally able to do something I’d wanted to do forever, and it was all because of this organic concept that started from my home during a time that was really challenging.”
Stephenson helped him navigate the complex and overwhelming process of securing the capital needed to find a permanent home. By the time Hanna was ready to take that step, St. Vito had grown into a wildly successful pop-up business. There were plenty of offers on the table to fund brick-and-mortar locations.
For many chefs looking to raise money and open a restaurant, there’s a strong temptation to jump on the first deal that comes around. Hanna says first-time restaurateurs who cut their teeth in the kitchen often aren’t equipped with the business acumen needed to strike the right deal. The result can be years of blood, sweat, and tears, only to end up with little payoff.
“There are a lot of really shitty deals out there,” he says. “It’s really hard to turn down money from big restaurant groups. But if it’s not right, then it’s not right.”
Some of the potential deals he fielded would have drastically shrunk his share in the business he built from the ground up.
“This concept is priceless to me. It’s my baby, It’s my dream. It’s the culmination of everything I worked for after spending 20 years in the kitchen,” Hanna says. “I’m not going to give you 75 percent or 85 percent equity, only to have you pump a bunch of money into a space and become my landlord, or make me pay you back millions of dollars, and I end up making less money than I would’ve just being a chef somewhere.”
Eventually, he linked up with an out-of-town investor that was on the hunt for a restaurant project in Nashville. The pair came to terms with a 50-50 deal. Importantly, the investor was on board with Hanna’s vision of maintaining a smaller staff to ensure everyone is paid a livable wage.
“We’re going through a transition as an industry, where people are sick and tired of being taken advantage of,” he says. “I was reading the tea leaves. We don’t have any labor. We’ve got inflation while wages are stagnant. We’ve got to figure out a way to wade through all of that and still be smart economically about how we’re doing things.”
Hanna and his investor agreed on a 20 percent service charge for in-house dining and a 15 percent service charge for to-go orders. Those will help cover elevated costs—as an example, he says pizza boxes for to-go orders have skyrocketed from around 15 cents to $2—while also creating a pool of funds that can be split across his eight- or nine-person team.
The space is equipped with new proofers and a massive mixer that will let Hanna do some real volume. It also features a triple-deck pizza oven. It’s a far cry from the convection ovens he’s used in the past.
“It’s the first time that we’re ever going to cook our pizzas in a real pizza oven,” he says. “It’s got a steam deck in it, so we can move forward with the focacceria aspect of doing some pastries and different breads.”
Located in the Gulch, a trendy upscale neighborhood known for shopping and entertainment venues, St. Vito’s permanent home will pay tribute to the concept’s roots with a small footprint and intimate atmosphere. The menu will feature the Classic Vito and Potato pizzas along with a rotating selection of seasonal pies, plus a cheese course provided by a local shop, protein sets, and a handful of seafood- and vegetable-driven small plates.
From the first customers who lined up on the driveway to the local businesses that provided temporary homes for the pop-up, Hanna says community has always been the driving force behind St. Vito. That won’t change when he opens the doors at the new spot.
“We’ve been through all the trials and tribulations of being in a city like Nashville, which is growing faster than it ever has before,” he says. “You’ve got outside restaurant groups coming to town and opening up $5 million or $6 million restaurants. You’ve got celebrity chefs who can open whatever they want wherever they want. And then you’ve got little old me, who’s fighting to build something up with good people and good investors. If it wasn’t for the community and all the people who supported us along the way, we wouldn’t be here at all.”