It is easy to overlook this unassuming pizzeria on 16th Street, having no outward signs that there is anything unusual about it. The hostess greets patrons with a smile and an inquisitive look as she raises one or two or more fingers, confirming the party’s number. She leads her guests to a table, lays down the menus, and disappears. She returns later and motions her hand to her mouth in a drinking gesture. By now, your suspicions will be raised that this is no ordinary pizzeria. The salt and pepper shakers at the edge of the table are set on a pad of paper and pen. Everything becomes clear as soon as you notice the waitress speaking to the rest of the dining staff in sign language. Throughout the meal, expect to rely on smiling and pointing to the menu to communicate with the waitstaff. It may seem pleasantly surprising to see a steady flow of customers make their way into the restaurant, effortlessly communicating in sign language with their families and the staff. Yet many hearing patrons accidentally stumble into this restaurant, one that is a treasured gem in the San Francisco deaf community, and warmly welcoming to everyone else.
Melody and Russell Stein opened their gourmet pizzeria in 2011, making it the first deaf-owned restaurant in San Francisco, and one of only a handful in the country. Yet Ms. Stein is modest about this impressive feat. “We are proud of this fact, but our customers have made it all possible and we thank them for making it happen,” she says.
Ms. Stein was born in Hong Kong, where her father ran two successful restaurants. Her family moved to California for better education opportunities when she was seven and her brother, who is also deaf, was five. She met her husband, Mr. Stein, who grew up in a large deaf family in New York City, when they were both studying Business Administration at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., the only university in the world specifically designed for deaf people. The two worked and lived in the Midwest for ten years before moving back to San Francisco and realizing their vision of opening a restaurant.
Growing up around her father’s restaurant businesses, Ms. Stein dreamt of owning her own restaurant. “It was a good feeling when I launched Mozzeria; it was an opportunity to continue another generation of our family in the hospitality industry,” she says. Ms. Stein attributes her success at Mozzeria to her father’s discipline. “I learned from my father that you get what you put in. I work long hours but I see results,” she explains.
Understandably, opening a restaurant has its obstacles, but Ms. Stein’s first one was to overcome her husband’s resistance. “To have my desire to launch a restaurant, I had to compromise with Russell that it would be a pizzeria! He is obsessed and eats pizza everyday,” Ms. Stein says. As a deaf couple, Mr. and Ms. Stein faced many other challenges as well. “I would think the biggest obstacle was people thinking we weren’t capable. We had to find ways of convincing or showing them that it could be done, and even assert our rights.” They also go through the usual trials of operating a restaurant in a very competitive market in San Francisco’s Mission District. Mozzeria’s location at 16th Street and Guerrero holds important meaning to the Steins. “We felt the Mission District reflected the spirit of diversity and our concept fit the atmosphere well,” reflects Ms. Stein.
Mozzeria provides a memorable dining experience for deaf customers, who no longer need to remain silent or nod along as a waiter rattles off the specials. They can be comfortable, ask questions, and be understood. “Deaf customers love dining at Mozzeria as they can communicate with every single member of the Mozzeria gang – whether it be the pizza makers, servers, busser, or the dishwasher! They don’t have to write down what they want to eat or point to specific items on the menu,” says Ms. Stein. But Mozzeria is by no means exclusive. The Steins encourage hearing customers to dine with them as well. “Our hearing customers enjoy the ambiance and the visual experience. Everything is visual – the way the food looks, communication, and atmosphere,” says Ms. Stein.
The Steins encourage people to visit Mozzeria for a new kind of dining adventure and the opportunity to experience different cultures. “First we want diners to enjoy the experience and for both deaf and hearing people to share cultures. San Francisco, after all, is a melting pot and we are just one of many examples in this vibrant city. We want diners to enjoy pizzas with unusual toppings out of a wood-burning oven which would blow you away!” says Ms. Stein.
While Mozzeria does have traditional pizzas on their menu, their unusual toppings should be noted. Ms. Stein incorporated her Chinese background into her husband’s Neapolitan pizza with the uniquely-fused Peking Duck Pizza. The pizza is topped with duck, hoisin, sesame seed, spring onion, and cucumber. The Steins are always looking to expand their menu. “We try out new recipes and complement our menu with new offerings to reflect each season,” Ms. Stein says.
The Steins’ primary goal for their restaurant is to provide a unique culinary experience and generate enough revenue to take on other ventures. This goal was actualized in October 2014 when they launched the Mozzeria mobile trolley, which resembles one of San Francisco’s famous cable cars. They embarked on a “Mozzeria Mobile Pizza Tour” throughout Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, and Los Angeles, making stops at food trucks and other public sites before bringing the trolley home to San Francisco. The tour was sponsored by deaf-owned or deaf-centric organizations. The Mobile Pizza Trolley is a functioning self-contained kitchen with a custom wood-burning oven which allows for Mozzeria to offer full on- and off-site catering for special occasions and functions. The Trolley makes appearances at various sites in the Bay Area, and you can visit their website for the schedule.
Mozzeria, 3228 16th Street (at Guerrero Street), San Francisco, CA, USA ,+1 (415) 489-0963
By Mary Slattery
Mary is a native San Franciscan who still manages to get lost in her own city. She loves cats, chai, cinnamon buns, baking, and staying up-to-date on the latest in pop culture.