There’s a lot going on during a typical day at Mozzeria in San Francisco, but no matter how crazy things get, staff members go about their business in total silence. As customers eagerly await their pizzaiolo-fashioned Neapolitan pies scooped fresh out of a sleek Stefano Ferrara oven, servers greet them with a smile and a simple, salute-like gesture before handing over a notebook and pen. When they speak, they use their fingers and facial expressions. A few customers—those who already know American Sign Language (ASL)—respond enthusiastically in kind. Others who aren’t familiar with it are eager to learn a few key phrases, such as “Thank you,” “Water, please” and, of course, “Can I have more wine?”
Like the pizza at Mozzeria, the staffers are world-class, and they are all completely deaf. Mozzeria is the first Deaf-owned-and-operated pizzeria in the United States—and a dream come true for co-owner Melody Stein.
Born in Hong Kong to a family of successful restaurateurs who later moved to San Francisco, Melody dreamed of having her own restaurant. She met Russ Stein, who is also deaf, at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. She recalled that their first date began with dinner at an Italian restaurant and ended with breakfast at a Greek diner at 2 a.m. It would be several years and a grave health scare later before Melody, at 37 years old, recognized that life was too short to not follow her dream.
“If restaurant operators or managers get any applications from deaf people wanting to work at their establishment, [they should] consider giving deaf people a chance to work and provide training for them to grow into their skills.”
— Melody Stein, Mozzeria Co-Owner
The Pursuit of Happiness
What took her so long? After graduating from high school, Melody applied to the California Culinary Academy, which she describes as “soundly” rejecting her, seeing her as a liability in the kitchen because she is deaf. This didn’t deter her from earning a degree in hospitality from San Francisco State University. She later traveled to Italy to study with pizza masters; there, she proved she was not a liability in the kitchen—in fact, she was quite an impressive asset. But, above all, she wanted to run a pizzeria herself, day in and day out. “We wanted to become hands-on owner-operators,” Melody says.
Her mother traveled with her to interpret for her at two private training courses in Sorrento and Positano. In their free time, they dined at local pizzerias, where Melody took notes on the quality of the dough, the taste of the sauce, and the melt of the cheese.
While Melody was overseas, Russ, a lifelong pizza lover, stayed home and built their first pizza oven in the backyard. They practiced with it for two years before they raised enough money and support to open Mozzeria in 2011. They chose to open it in San Francisco, where Melody’s childhood dream began.
The hideaway location seats 50 people around its main attraction, the 5,000-pound Stefano Ferrara oven. They spent $15,000 to bring home this “Rolls Royce of pizza ovens,” and Melody considers it the best investment they made. The Steins’ deaf employees bake the pizzas in the wood-fired oven at more than 12,000° for 90 seconds.
But the oven wasn’t the Steins’ only smart investment. “We are most proud of our team,” Melody says. “Our decision to employ an all-Deaf team was one of the best decisions we ever made. Most of them came to Mozzeria with no working experience, and now many have held their positions at Mozzeria for more than three to five years. Some of them have been promoted to management or supervisor positions. When you come to our San Francisco location, you will see that nearly everything is built by deaf people—the electricity, plumbing, flooring, painting, furniture and artwork.”
Accordingly, nearly all of the items on Mozzeria’s menu are made in-house by deaf employees. “We consider Mozzeria a teaching restaurant, and our team members gain more skills in crafting pizza, cheese and sausage,” Melody notes. “We want our workers to take pride in creating and serving high-quality and delicious food.”
The pizzeria now serves only pizzas—after the Steins discovered in their second year of operation that most of their customers came for the pies, not pasta or anything else. This led to more creativity in developing their pizza recipes. “San Francisco has a fabulous food scene, and we knew we would have to work harder and get customers with more sophisticated palates to dine at Mozzeria,” Melody says. “We decided to blend together our Asian influence with the traditional Neapolitan, and we wanted our food to stand out.”
Her favorite pizza on the menu is the Peking Duck, topped with hoisin sauce, spring onion, sesame seeds and cucumber. Another favorite is the Hosui Pear, made with pancetta, Brie, roasted garlic, spinach and balsamic. The pizzeria also offers two “secret pizzas” that go unmentioned on the menu: a Farm Egg Pizza and a Radicchio Pizza.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
In eight years, Mozzeria has grown from a tucked-away restaurant with a high-end wood-fired Italian oven to a thriving establishment with two food trucks. “We notice our customers find meaning [here] for different reasons,” Melody says. “Many of our deaf customers are happy they can order in their own language, ASL. Many hearing customers gain a new experience in a visual medium at our restaurant. But, at the end of the day, it’s all about good food. We have a good number of repeat customers, and some of them even learn sign language.”
Mozzeria’s success in combating prejudice with pizza has even earned a multimillion-dollar investment from the Austin, Texas-based Communication Service for the Deaf Social Venture Fund (CSD SVF). As the first-named recipient of the investment, Mozzeria will expand to two new locations—one in Washington, D.C., near Gallaudet University, where the Steins met—and another one in Austin. The D.C. location will be significantly different from their original. Opening next year, it will seat 100 customers and require over 50 deaf waiters, chefs and hosts.
Mozzeria aims to become a national chain that employs deaf people only. “We are excited that Mozzeria, Inc.—with significant backing from the CSD SVF, the nation’s first venture fund for Deaf-owned-and-operated businesses—is looking to open eight to 12 Mozzeria locations in the next few years,” Melody says. This expansion will create more job opportunities for the Deaf community, 70% of which is either unemployed or underemployed.
“We consider Mozzeria a teaching restaurant, and our team members gain more skills in crafting pizza, cheese and sausage. We want our workers to take pride in creating and serving high-quality and delicious food.”
— Melody Stein, Mozzeria Co-Owner
Partnering with a deaf-owned pizzeria like Mozzeria was “an easy choice,” says Dominic Lacy, chief innovation officer at CSD and head of the Social Venture Fund. “Mozzeria’s commitment to an all-Deaf workforce in all aspects of the business, including in managerial and administrative positions, aligns perfectly with our goal of increasing employment in the Deaf community in two ways—one, by investing directly in Deaf-owned businesses, and two, by showcasing their success to the greater public in the name of changing perceptions.
“Melody and Russ already understood the value of hiring deaf employees,” Lacy adds. “It was easy to align their vision with our vision of creating social impact through supporting a Deaf-owned business that, in turn, would create employment opportunities for the Deaf community.”
Mozzeria is more than a pizza shop for the Steins. It’s their life, their community, and something they want to share with the world. “If restaurant operators or managers get any applications from deaf people wanting to work at their establishment, [they should] consider giving deaf people a chance to work and provide training for them to grow into their skills,” Melody concludes. “It shouldn’t be a surprise to discover that deaf people are talented in many different ways, and there are many of us out there!”
Callie Daniels Bryant is PMQ’s associate editor.