Kyle Jacovino on the end of The Florence, the beginning of 1540 Room, and why he hasn’t given up on Savannah

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Photo by Cedric Smith

In 2013, Kyle Jacovino blew into Savannah at the helm of The Florence, a much-loved modern Italian kitchen that brought life and beet scarpinocc to a long-neglected stretch of Victory Drive. This summer the news broke that the restaurant was finito, but fret not: Kyle’s setting his sights on a downtown renaissance at the reimagined DeSoto Hotel’s new 1540 Room.

I knew Savannah was growing, but I wasn’t sure how fast, and I wasn’t sure I had the patience. Then I sat back and thought about what I’ve accomplished here, and the people I know here. When you build up those kinds of relationships, it’s hard to let them go. I’ve moved a lot – overseas, New York, Atlanta. There comes a point when you have to stop, and I love this city.

Sotherly Hotels is asking, how can we think for the cities we’re in? How can we attract the neighborhood? So their idea was, let’s build a concept around a chef that thinks like that. [DeSoto general manager] Jeff Kmiec came from The Greenbrier in West Virginia. We sat down and were both very upfront. He said, “Think local: your food, your connections. Build a restaurant as you’d build it if it was yours. Hire your own staff, create your own menu, pick your own wines.” It was the right fit. He’s just a cool dude. Plus he’s a great dresser. Awesome suits.

Right off the rip, we got demolished. Maybe we came in the wrong way, maybe we should have explained ourselves a little better. When you’re working with a celebrity chef, it’s hard. No matter what you say, it’s bigger than you. But the last year, man, it was great. At the end of the day, closing was a purely financial decision. We had a café, a downstairs dining room, an upstairs dining room, an outside patio, two kitchens, two bars. I tell everybody this – if you take The Florence and cut the space in half, we’re not having this conversation. We took a shot, a big chance on a place that size. The last two weeks we had 200 people a night. I overheard someone say, “I’ve never even been to the Florence. It’s so great, I wonder why it’s closing.” That’s why.

I’m at the point in my career where you can’t really twist me to do what I don’t want to do. I’m just sticking to what I know: Italian food with Southern ingredients and a little Latin influence, too. My job now is to teach people, so they can grow and be better than me. As long as I can keep teaching my staff, they’ll stay. And then they’ll move on. A lot of chefs leave too early. They cut bait and take shortcuts. I’m not about a shortcut. Just because something’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. And it shouldn’t be easy.

In high school, I was a hands-on guy. I was into sports, but I’d fall asleep in class. I worked at my uncle’s pizzeria as a dishwasher and then moved up to grating cheese. My senior year I quit every sport and signed up for a vo-tech culinary program. What really got me was how active and upbeat everyone was in the kitchen. When it was busy, you had to work together. The camaraderie, the teamwork. To this day, I treat cooking like a sport. That’s why I wear a backwards Yankees hat, Jordans, high socks. I treat it like my championship series. That’s what energizes me. It’s totally different than anything else.

I still have things I want to accomplish. I’m not a secretive guy. If you ask me what my intentions are, I’ll tell you. Do I want to create something beautiful at the De Soto? Absolutely. Do I still want to open a pizzeria? Absolutely. Do I want to be able to do both? Yeah, I do. I want to build a name for myself and help the city grow. The Florence, The Grey, Cotton & Rye, Atlantic, Collins Quarter…we’re at a restaurant per year now. It’s up to Savannah to realize what we deserve as a city, and decide where we want to go – to support the farmers, to eat right, to spread the word. I’m excited to be on the forefront of that. It’s any chef’s dream.