Deaf-Owned Mozzeria Shows Signs of Great Pizza Coming to the Mission

| November 28, 2011 | 16 Comments
  • 16 Comments

mozzeria

In the vibrant neighborhood around 16th Street and Guerrero, a new Italian restaurant is taking shape. As opening day draws closer, construction continues around the clock. Come by and you may hear the squeal of the electric saw, the clattering of lumber, the whine of an electric drill. But, despite the fact that several people are conversing simultaneously, one noise that’s notably absent is the sound of voices. That’s because the conversations are all in sign language. The owners and operators of Mozzeria, Melody and Russell Stein, and many of their workers are deaf.

For this food writer—whose other job as a sign language interpreter has given her the gift of another language and a window into a fascinating culture—this is the dream interview. As I visit with Melody and Russ, we effortlessly chat in ASL (American Sign Language).

melody and russ stein

Make no mistake, however, the Steins are designing their restaurant and menu for the general public. And Melody has done her homework: besides studying Hospitality Management, she did a tour of Italy in 2010, taking cooking classes in several Italian cities to hone her recipes and perfect her pizza technique.

Melody also draws on support and inspiration from her father, who ran two successful restaurants in Hong Kong, where she was born. When her parents realized that Melody and her younger brother were both deaf, they began a search for the best school for their children. After short stints in deaf schools in the Philippines and Singapore, the whole family relocated to Northern California, where Melody and her brother attended CSD (California School for the Deaf in Fremont) and her father opened another branch of his Wu Kong restaurant in San Francisco’s Rincon Center.

Actually, Russ is the reason behind the pizza. Growing up in a large deaf family in New York City, Russ has always been a pizza addict, devouring cheesy slices almost every day. Melody and Russ met when they were both studying Business Administration at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. (the world’s only university specifically designed for deaf people).

After they married and had two children (now 10 and 12) and worked for a large non-profit in South Dakota for 10 years, they moved back to California (partly because they missed the food) and started a management consulting company. Melody’s dream, however, was to open a restaurant. “So the compromise,” she jokes, “is that to please Russ it had to be a pizza restaurant. Now I know that my husband will be happy every day.”

Of course, only the world’s best pizza would satisfy this pizza gourmet and that’s why Mozzeria will be serving Neapolitan style pizza made in their new 5,000 pound Stefano Ferrara wood-burning oven, imported from Italy. Russ will use almond, oak or apple wood to feed the shiny black-tiled mountain that dominates the dining room of their cozy 49-seat space. As for the rest of the décor, Melody uses the vivid economy of ASL signs to paint a quick picture of the kind of Italian restaurant this is NOT going to be. She deftly describes a red-and-white-checkered tablecloth and old wine bottle overflowing with colored wax drippings, then gently shakes her head as she smiles sweetly.

Instead, Melody envisions a combination of modern and vintage styles. The vintage is inherently part of this historic 1908 building and is stunningly represented in the 100 year old hardwood floor they were thrilled to discover hiding under grungy old tile.

As is the custom in collectivist Deaf Culture, the Steins looked first for deaf artisans or laborers to fill their needs and found Michael E. Sharnov and Samuel Reynolds, deaf wood refinishers who brought out the warm luster in the dark brown Douglas fir floor. They also hired Nathan Dingel, a deaf electrician and HVAC professional who was Melody’s classmate at CSD and Ron Trumble, a deaf woodworker, to design and make their door, tables, shelves, banquette seating and a counter topped with marble. Interior designer, Patty Foo Hampton, who has deaf parents, created a stark black and white color scheme, set off by shiny red chairs that are sitting in patient stacks, waiting for opening night, which is planned for December 9.

chairs, floor

As for the menu, Melody is keeping some surprises up her sleeve until the big day. She does say that Mozzeria will feature “traditional and non-traditional pizzas to celebrate San Francisco’s cultural diversity.” Pasta and inventive small plates (developed by lead cook Justin Belluomini) will be served with local beer on tap, Californian and Italian wine and vintage sodas. Their wood fired oven will reach a temperature of 1000 degrees and bake pizzas to crispy, melty goodness in a flash—60-90 seconds. Dinner will be offered Tuesday-Sunday nights with addition of brunch on the weekends.

“There are only a handful of deaf owned restaurants around the country, “ says Russell proudly, “ We are the first one in a major city—and a famous food city too.” Although, the Steins expect that most of their customers will be “hearing” (the ASL term for those who are not deaf), they want to make sure their deaf supporters, many of whom have been cheering on Mozzeria’s progress over the past year on their blog, are comfortable too.

Lighting is the most important component for deaf diners and Russ says that Mozzeria will have plenty of lighting. Melody adds that dim interiors make her eyes tired and teases that candle-lit tables could be dangerous during an emphatically signed exchange. Their big screen TV will have its captions on permanently, emergency lights will be strobe-enabled and flashing light signals will alert them when the phone rings or someone is at the door.

Customers can make reservations online using Open Table and the restaurant is also equipped with a videophone which hearing customers can access through a video-relay service.

Melody has already hired two deaf dishwashers through CSD’s Work Readiness program and hopes to hire servers who can sign. Communication is not expected to be a big problem as Melody and Russ are both comfortable writing notes with their hearing vendors and customers. “Our UPS man has gotten used to Deaf culture now that he has been making so many deliveries here,” says Melody, smiling. “He knows to wave his arms outside the window to get my attention when there is a package for me.”

For updates and to check opening date, go to mozzeria.com.
Address: 3228 16th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103
Twitter: @MozzeriaSF
Facebook: Mozzeria

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Category: bay area, Bay Area Bites Food + Drink, local food businesses, restaurants, bars, cafes, san francisco

About the Author ()

My passion is exploring the connection between food and culture. I write regularly for Oakland and Alameda Magazines and Berkeleyside's NOSH. My blog, East Bay Ethnic Eats, gives me an excuse to track down the only Bay Area baker making fresh filo dough or learn to stuff a dried eggplant with help from a Turkish immigrant. Culture is the thread that ties together my several careers. As a sign language interpreter, educator and author, my study of Deaf culture has taken me around the world, where I fell madly in love with seed-strewn Danish bread, attacked platters of French shellfish with a small arsenal of tools and sampled a Japanese breakfast so fresh it wiggled. I'm also an epicurean concierge for Edible Excursions Japan town tours (that I lead in either English or ASL). And when I conduct in-depth cultural trainings for foreign workers being transferred to the Bay Area, I am sure to discuss the delights of doggie bags and the mystery of American restaurants serving ice water in the dead of winter. I can be found tweeting @EBEthniceats
  • Dan Parvaz

    “We are the first [Deaf-owned restaurant] in a major city…”

    Ragin’ Cajun, a restaurant owned and operated by a Deaf-Blind chef in Seattle closed in 2002, but was in business for several years. Is Seattle not a “major city”?

    Other than that — the best of success to Mozzeria!

  • http://www.joeybaer.com Joey Baer

    Great article and that is the main reason I am so PROUD to be Deaf. You see, there is nothing wrong with Deaf people and there is no reason to fix Deaf people BUT to embrace them. By giving Deaf people more opportunities, the whole society will realize that Deaf people is just an another group who embrace you as well! Cant wait for the grand opening!

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  • sfthen

    The Deaf Club was on west side of Valencia mid-block between 16 & 17 at least till maybe the early 1980s. Punk bands rented the place in the late 1970s and an LP “Can You Hear Me” was released. Guess things have come full circle!

  • CABBYMAC DA ONE

    O’BOI ! I MA SOO PROUD OF YOU MR. RUSS STEIN ! I KNEW MY FORMER CSD SKOOL TEACHER MR. STEIN, ( YUR POP ) DAT HE IZ NOW SO PROUD OF YOU TOO ! LOLZ

    I WOULD LIKE TO GO THIZ PLACE AS I MISSED THAT FO’ MANY YEARZ SINCE DEAF MANAGER SOLD THIZ PLACE TO SOMEBODY WHO BOUGHT THIZ PLACE (((GRUUGGH)) TIL’ YA GOT TO OWNED THIZ PLACE, BE PLEASE TO KEEP IT PREMINNCE TO LYFETYME , THANK YOU

  • Heidi J. Hawk

    Dear Mr. & Mrs. Stein,

    I’m amazed in your story. Especially proud of both of you in trying to succeed in opening a restaurant in a major city. I’d love to visit your place of establishment. We need more deaf people to encourage life’s successes.
    Please send more information on ur restaurant, Mozzeria. My boyfriend and I cannot wait to meet you both. Thank you for posting and opening a few eyes out there. Just wanted to say good luck.

    Heidi J. Hawk
    ( hppt://www.facebook.com/SlyKatt )

  • Michael U

    What an amazing story!! My best to you both for a successful opening and an even better future. I am actually a hearing person but, having an ex spouse that is deaf and being a part of the deaf community for a long time now, this is one of the most beautiful stories i have heard in the deaf community. In a world of un-certainty and a bad economy, you are taking a risk and i commend you for that. Your bravery speaks for itself!!!

    best of luck again, i cant wait to get to S.F. and have some good italian food. I am sending this story and my recommendation to many of my friends and family to come visit your new restaurant soon!!

  • Jessica Saravia

    Wish I was closer…I’d definitely be there for your big day. Blessings to you and your business venture!!

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  • http://facebook Gail Kayais

    Im happy for your success.Love the concept.You will help others try for their dreams.Best wishes

  • http://www.fesf.org.pk Richard Geary

    Congratulations on an amazing Deaf-empowered enterprise, and wish you all success. I am living in Pakistan, director of Family Educational Services Foundation (FESF) currently running 5 “Deaf Reach Schools and Training Centers” with plans to open several more in 2012-13. See a short video at: http://www.fesf.org.pk

    We share your passion in empowering and providing employment for the Deaf. We’ve collaborated with KFC restaurants here, and there are now 4 branches countrywide fully run by the Deaf. [For the record, the chicken tastes better :)] Maybe we can open a branch of Mozzeria – i believe it would be a huge success, as everyone here loves Pizza!

    P.S. You can also view the Deaf Reach video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEG88dv9Hdg

  • Pat Johanson

    Congratulations to Russ and Melody! Both of them were two of my most outstanding students in the business program at Gallaudet University (seems so long ago) and we have kept in touch. They were and are both visionary, smart, and motivated and I have been following the development of Mozzeria with a great deal of interest and excitement. It’s wonderful to see former students pursuing their dreams and making them happen. I can’t wait to visit Mozzeria!

  • cindy toyama

    we will stop by ur restraunt  im soo exicting !
     

  • Emma

    This is Awesome!! my daughter also went to CSD in Fremont, Im very proud of you guys.. I will definitely recommend this place to my friends and family, cannot wait to dine in there… Congratulations, Way to Go!!!

  • Gennavieve Gina

    Uhm a restaurant is a restaurant… why does it have to be a “deaf” restaurant?

  • Tori

    Because if you havent noticed, deaf people cant really order anything at restaurants without getting weird looks or having a hard time,the only way to communicate is writing down everything. Its hard, and this gives them a chance to actaully enjoy being able to go out and have fun