Skip to Content
Features

The Familial Influences of Chef Michael Hanna

Chef Michael Hanna of St. Vito Focacceria shares the inspiration of his Italian roots in the American South.

Chef Michael Hanna. Photo by Nigel Dennis.

Raised among a family of chefs and restaurant owners, Michael Hanna has always enjoyed cooking for loved ones and exploring new avenues of creativity in the kitchen. The Memphis, Tennessee, native remains inspired by his Sicilian roots, and through an intrigue to cook familiar foods with a creative edge Hanna has worked to perfect his sfincione-style pizza since he initially fell in love with the special dough as a child. After nearly 18 years of working in the restaurant industry, he looks forward to continuing to dedicate his career to serving others by providing a cuisine that is unique and impactful, and creating a business that defies the history of restaurants as an unhealthy work environment through St. Vito Focacceria. Hanna began St. Vito as a traveling pop-up selling pies through Instagram that led to local residencies, before landing at his first brick-and-mortar location in the Gulch (between Nashville’s Music Row and Downtown). Guests can expect a tailored, intentional menu of a handful of pizzas and other regional dishes, plus a complementary rotating selection of wine, beer, and cocktails. Here, Hanna shares a little about his family background and the five dishes derived from it that inspired his career.


I come from a pretty big complex Italian family, and that's probably not too unusual as it pertains to Italian immigrant families. My mother was a Tarantino, but our side follows the matriarchy, which was the Giacona family, who also married into the D’avanza clan. There is a lot to unpack here, but the bottom line is all three families have been working in conjunction together for years – especially when it comes to food, recipes, traditions, and business. Some recipes and techniques have been handed down to the family trees over generations and are still alive and well to this day.

sfincione
The classic Vito sfincione from Michael Hanna's St. Vito Focacceria. Photo: Courtesy of St. Vito Focacceria

Meatballs

The first recipe or dish that has always been something our family has been consistent with is making our meatballs. Yes, very Italian-American of us but there were lots of kids and kids love meatballs. I remember visiting my grandmother and she would always be rolling them by hand in her kitchen, and as a child, I would help. I still remember the sound and the sticky combination of onions, pork, veal, and a small bit of ground beef, and the very pungent smell of lots of garlic, parsley, and breadcrumbs. There was nothing fancy about how they were made or cooked, but they were always perfect and consistent. It’s that memory that keeps me striving for the consistency we try our hardest to offer at St. Vito Focacceria. My mom took over meatball duty when my grandmother passed and consistency has always stayed the same. It's like the recipe is ingrained in our makeup as humans.

Braciola

My uncle Chris Tarantino was a chef (all four of my mother's brothers were chefs or restaurateurs) and the master of this dish. After my grandfather passed away, my grandmother moved in with his family and holidays were now spent in their home. I remember a bubbling pot of this mystery meat, smothered in a rich tomato gravy, hanging out on the stove for what seemed like an eternity. I was always astounded that it was stuffed and tied together with string.  As a kid, it just felt strange and unnatural to me, but I knew once it was finished it would be the highlight of my Thanksgiving or Christmas. We usually only ate braciola during the cold months and holidays.

Dirty Pasta

I am not sure where this recipe came from. I believe it was my aunt Selena, who was my grandfather's sister and was most proclaimed (still to this day) as being the best cook in the family. A very simple mess of vegetables and pasta cooked with tons of butter, wine, and seasoned breadcrumbs. It’s probably where my love and affection for highly seasoned breadcrumbs (which is applied to every sficnione we serve at St. Vito) comes from.

The food of my mother

This is not really a dish but I guess more of a style of nostalgia – but pretty much anything my mother made as a child. She was always canning her own tomatoes, making mozzarella, and experimenting. She has a way with black-eyed peas and collard greens and always loved making us hot cross buns on Easter, cinnamon rolls, or pull-apart sweet rolls shaped as a Christmas tree with icing during the holidays.

The classics of my grandmother

My grandmother on my father’s side of the family was just a regular down-home country cook. She didn’t make anything that would challenge you culinarily, but she made the classics like beef stew, deviled eggs, potato salad, and the best damn strawberry cake served on a perfectly flimsy paper plate you’ll ever eat. Every Christmas she would make a cherry cream pie for my dad’s birthday on the 21st and serve it with a side of white chocolate-covered Oreos and canned cherries. When February rolled around, there was always a bunt cake and pineapple upside-down cake for my grandfather's birthday. Every weekend she would make a big breakfast for the entire family full of perfectly fried eggs, microwaved bacon, and fluffy pancakes. She hated to cook and she never used a peeler for any vegetable, using just a small, likely very dull petty knife. My grandfather was a simple man from the Arkansas Delta, the son of a sharecropper and military vet. He loved his home-fried potatoes and fried hot dogs for lunch with a chunk of onion or salted watermelon slice in the summer with raw tomatoes.

Already a user?Log in

Thanks for reading!

Register to continue

See all subscription options

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Appetito

Sunday Shop: No Bull, Zero Restriction, Lawn Club

Morgan Hines seeks out the best in not only food and drink but style, housewares, and more. Welcome to Appetito’s Sunday Shop!

June 23, 2024

20 Things to Know About Prosecco DOC

National Prosecco Week is coming next week, which makes this a great time to freshen up your knowledge of the popular Italian sparkling wine.

June 19, 2024

Look Inside Massara, the New NYC Restaurant From Stefano Secchi

The acclaimed chef’s follow-up to Rezdôra, Massara focuses on the cuisine of Campania, with fresh pastas, roasted meats, pizzettes, and more.

June 18, 2024

How To Apply for the S. Pellegrino Young Chefs Academy Competition

Applications close this week for the prestigious culinary competition that has become a springboard for launching chef careers.

June 17, 2024
See all posts