Words by Sarah Michael Hickman
Opening weekend at Michael Locascio’s new Cullman, Alabama restaurant, The National, was a trial by fire. Luckily, Michael has over 30 years of restaurant and food industry experience. After helping open 48 restaurants throughout his career—knowing that all openings are brutal at first—he figured he might as well confront the chaos. He also had a strong crew supporting him from the location’s previous restaurant—a crew he was so sure of and didn’t want to lose, that he kept them on payroll during the building’s renovation. Reassured by the kindness, love, and loyalty of the people of Cullman, The National opened on one of the busiest weekends of the year—the weekend of both Cinco de Mayo and the Cullman Strawberry Festival, which drew almost 25,000 people last year.
Before coming to Cullman, where he raised his two daughters, Michael had made up his mind to leave the states behind. Because of his Italian heritage, he could apply for dual citizenship and purchase a home in Italy for a fraction of the cost of any of the cities he had previously worked in. He had been a chef in prominent restaurants in almost every US city and several in Europe, but the grind of city living and the sometimes toxic workplace culture of fine dining had become exhausting. Life on a Venetian canal, cooking in a country that has a passion for food, seemed like a welcome change.
Change came in an unexpected form when he was back in his hometown of Birmingham, saving money for his move. Michael was working with a company designing a restaurant. He interviewed a few potential interior designers, one named Nena. By the end of their meeting he said, “that was it.” He was 33 years old and had told himself he would never get married, but seven weeks later they were married—and 20 years later she is the only designer he works with.
With The National, the self described, “weird, architectural design kid” wanted to create an atmosphere that was inclusive to all, while still pushing the boundaries of what’s expected of a small town. “Every small town wants a place they can call their own—that’s what we want to be. That’s what I want to be,” said Michael. “We want to be that thing that every small town wants and deserves.”
Their building is painted Newport Blue with a fire engine red door and custom upholstery. Michael had a tinge of satisfaction in his voice when describing how folks passing by would comment on the construction progress, their confusion by his design choices visible. That confusion turned to excitement as everything came together and installations were completed. The inside of the restaurant provides a fine dining experience, while the back patio satisfies a more relaxed vibe—their “garden” with raised planter boxes, a pergola, and communal seating picnic tables.
“People are fiercely loyal to this little town.” said Michael. Enjoying coming to work and making it a place where people can feel supported and comfortable is important to him. It's expected, but nonetheless refreshing, from someone who expresses such an enthusiastic love for a place and its people.
His passion also shines through when discussing his relationship with fine dining and the kind of experience he wants customers to have. “Restaurants are theater, and we should be changing the scene. We dictate how this flows—we’re not the entertainment, we’re all the things behind the scenes you don’t notice…it should be seamless.”
Michael then revealed the origin of their name, The National. He talked about an out of town customer visiting Lake Smith. They wondered why he hadn’t chosen a bigger city to open his restaurant.
“Why don’t you pick somewhere with a more national presence like Nashville, or Huntsville, or Birmingham?”
Michael replied “Man, we’re in Cullman, we are National."
The National opened in Cullman, AL on May 5th.