Mozzeria Closure Is a Double Loss for Deaf Diners

The Deaf community came out to support Melody and Russ Stein on opening night. (Ken Arcia / Arcia Photography, www.arcia.us)

A 49-seat pizza restaurant in the Mission is the latest casualty of the pandemic, closing November 12 almost nine years after Melody and Russ Stein opened the spot on 16th Street. As San Francisco’s first and only Deaf-owned-and-operated restaurant, it was really two places simultaneously: A cozy eatery, appreciated by locals for its calm vibe, lack of booming music and crusty, wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas and a Deaf-centric space that was a welcoming home for the all-Deaf staff and diners from around the world.

While the narrow space’s two-tops were often filled with hearing couples, the back of the room held the only space large enough to accommodate a big group. Celebrating a birthday, graduation or job well done with a bunch of Deaf friends was the perfect excuse for a festive night out at Mozzeria.  But no excuse was needed. After a week of feeling isolated as the only Deaf person in a hearing workplace, Mozzeria was just the place to unwind and probably bump into Deaf friends or friends of friends and relax, chatting the night away. 

That rare instance of 100% communication access was a big draw for Deaf diners. As co-founder Russ Stein explained in a video interview for KQED a few months after Mozzeria’s opening:

“Growing up in my Deaf family, when we went out to restaurants, it was a very isolating feeling. We would always be the only Deaf people in the place. This restaurant provides one of the very few opportunities for the tables to be turned… When a waiter brings over the menu. Deaf customers can ask detailed questions for the first time. Deaf people are so used to the waiters rattling off the specials, while they kind of nod politely and just guess at what was said. Now when the server mentions the special, the customer can ask questions and find out about the ingredients and preparation. It’s very exciting… Deaf people have never really had this opportunity… .” 

Melody and Russ Stein
Co-owners Melody and Russ Stein. (Ken Arcia / Arcia Photography, www.arcia.us)

Among its hearing customers (who definitely outnumbered their Deaf counterparts most nights), some knew that they were coming to a Deaf restaurant and came specifically to practice their American Sign Language (ASL). Others had no clue of Mozzeria’s uniqueness until their waiter affably gestured, pointed, and mimed. Many left having at least learned one sign: “thank you.” 

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The Steins met in 1995 when they were graduate business administration students at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, the world’s only university specifically designed for Deaf people. Melody always nurtured the dream of owning a restaurant. Russ was game, if it could supply him with his favorite food, pizza. The pair did their homework to prepare.

Before Mozzeria opened, Russ set up a wood-fired oven in their backyard and practiced making pizzas for two years. Melody traveled to Italy, where she learned how to make pasta in Rome and pizza in Sorrento and Positano.

After finally securing a space, they hired a Deaf electrician, Deaf wood refinishers, and a Deaf woodworker to design and construct their tables, shelves, and marble-topped counter. They also featured Deaf artists on the walls of their restaurant.

Mozzeria opened on December 9, 2011. Word quickly spread around the world from accounts in the New York Times, Washington Post and on TV news stories and scores of other media outlets. Soon they were welcoming Deaf visitors from across the globe, from Sweden, Italy, China, Australia, Brazil, Japan and other countries. (Even though each country uses a different sign language, when two Deaf people from different countries meet, their shared visual orientation, comfort with gesturing and the iconicity of some signs makes it much easier for them to quickly communicate the basics, compared to hearing people who speak different languages).

The restaurant, at times, reflected cross-cultural clues in its menu, like Melody’s signature dish the Peking Duck Pizza  topped with sliced cucumber, green onions and sesame seeds. The dish is an homage to Melody’s family owning several Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong and later San Francisco. 

Soya Mori, a Deaf developmental economist and sign language linguist from Tokyo, spent a year as a visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley. “The first week of my stay at UC Berkeley, I visited Mozzeria with my family,” says Mori. “It was one of our dreams, because it was so famous to foreign visitors. Deaf-owned businesses like Mozzeria are so important for our Deaf community. We are really sorry to know of its closing.”

Russ Stein making a margherita pizza.
Russ Stein making a margherita pizza. (Ken Arcia / Arcia Photography, www.arcia.us)

“Mozzeria inspired Deaf people all over the US that it is possible to open their own restaurant,”  said Nichola Schmitz, a Deaf relay interpreter. “It also gave a host of jobs to Deaf workers, and not just as dishwashers, hidden away in the kitchen, but as cashiers, servers, everything. When hearing people read the reviews, instead of looking down on Deaf people, they looked up to the owners of Mozzeria and wanted to support them.”

“Melody and Russ were more than restaurateurs,” says Julie Rems-Smario, a Deaf Education Consultant for the California Department of Education. “They were very involved with the Deaf community. They sponsored a host of fundraisers at Mozzeria and gave us the whole place for free one Monday so we could shoot a film to bring awareness about domestic violence in the queer community. They also invited students at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont to have internships at Mozzeria,” Rems-Smario adds. “And when they graduated, many became employees there.”

 Part of Mozzeria’s decision to have an all-Deaf work force came from the intimate knowledge that Deaf people face huge hurdles in finding employment. Less than 40 percent work full time.

Rachel Zemach, a Deaf writer and former teacher of Deaf children, speaks of the hope, empowerment and financial freedom that comes with having a job. “Mozzeria was important to counter the despair that Deaf people feel at being blocked from working, even at the lowest level jobs. Mozzeria gave Deaf people another way of thinking about their power in the world. It was a venue that raised up Deaf people in the world of work. Their impact went much deeper than food.”

 Former employee Jason Wittig worked as a server at Mozzeria for three years before he got his dream job doing photography at SFMOMA. “Mozzeria was a great place for Deaf people who needed employment and experience to improve their skills in dealing with both the hearing and Deaf public. Melody and Russ Stein graciously provided a safe and wonderful environment for Deaf people, no matter what their skill level, to be employed, which can be very difficult in the hearing world. They knew it was important for Deaf people to be able to provide for themselves by making a living on their own terms.”

In 2017, Mozzeria partnered with the CSD Social Venture Fund (CSD SVF), which supports Deaf entrepreneurs in growing their businesses. and expanded as Mozzeria Inc., to transform itself into a national brand. In September 2020, the second Mozzeria, in Washington DC, opened during the pandemic. Future plans for expansion are up in the air.

 While San Francisco Mozzeria’s brick and mortar has closed, it still has a huge food truck, which regularly appears at Off The Grid, will still be used for private events.  

Ryan Maliszewski, CEO of Mozzeria, Inc. says, “right now our primary focus is to maximize our food truck visibility across the Bay Area so that we can bring Mozzeria much closer to our current as well as new customers. We also plan to explore the idea of doing a traveling “Mozzeria Food Truck Tour” across the Pacific Northwest or even southern California where we could also test new markets for potential brand expansion down the road.”

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 Around the world, there are just a handful of Deaf-owned-and operated restaurants. Many have recently closed, but some, including Crêpe Crazy in Austin, 1000&1 Signes, a Moroccan restaurant in Paris, Sign with Me Social Café in Tokyo, and Bravo Caffe in Taipei, are struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic.