Thumbs Up for Pizza and Small Plates at Deaf-Owned Mozzeria

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For 4 months Mozzeria’s black-domed, wood-burning oven has been turning out bubbly, aromatic pizzas to the delight of their growing fan base. “Great Neapolitan pizza…awesome crust,” raved a recent review on Serious Eats’ Slice.

Owners Melody and Russ Stein want to be known for their food -- innovative pizzas and inventive small plates -- and they definitely should be. Still, there’s no denying that a visit to Mozzeria, one of a handful of deaf-owned restaurants across the country, is a singular experience. This video serves up a closer look at their mix of traditional and creative Italian fare plus an interview with Melody and Russ (in ASL) about the significance of their restaurant to both deaf and hearing diners.

Any pizza’s crust is its defining element. Sixty to ninety seconds in Mozzeria’s sleek, imported Stefano Ferrara oven turns out a whisper-light, crispy, yet chewy wonder with a lightly charred bottom.

mozzeria prosciutto with wild arugula pizza
prosciutto with wild arugula

Russ, the pizza perfectionist in the family, admits he has built a close relationship with his oven and learned to master its quirks and idiosyncrasies. Toppings add personality to the pie. And Mozzeria offers a range of personalities from playful to sophisticated, ($12-$18).


mozzeria asparagus pizza
roasted asparagus, garlic, blue cheese and truffle oil

The simple Margherita allows the puffy, chewy crust to shine through, topped with mozzarella, olive oil and herbs. The roasted asparagus with garlic, blue cheese and truffle oil is delicate yet decadent. Other winners include caramelized onions with pancetta and goat cheese crowned by thick planks of eggplant.

mozzeria duck pizza
roasted duck, green onions and hoisin sauce

The why-didn’t-anyone-think-of-this-before roast duck pizza with green onions and hoisin sauce (served only on Fridays) ties directly to Melody’s Chinese heritage.

As mentioned in a post about Mozzeria I wrote prior to its opening, the owners of this Mission eatery have food in their blood. Melody’s father owned restaurants in Hong Kong and later in San Francisco. Growing up in New York, Russ was a pizza addict from day one. They came up with their restaurant's name by combining “mozzarella” and “pizzeria.”

small plates mozzeria
roasted Japanese eggplant on crostini, beet salad

Another influence from Melody’s Chinese heritage is the variety of small plates that change with the seasons. She hopes to encourage diners to share dishes and try new tastes.

mozzeria Humboldt fog and honey
Humboldt fog and honey

The small plates selection includes a variety of salumi and cheeses served simply, with crisp toast slices and an accent, such as a swirl of honey or a pair of candied orange peels. Roasted Japanese eggplant with ricotta on crostini demonstrates how impressive a couple of great ingredients, perfectly prepared, can be. Another great combination I tried was pickled pink and white cauliflower paired with paper-thin prosciutto.

Mozzeria Bar
Mozzeria Bar

Their signature appetizer, the Mozzeria Bar, is a crowd pleaser with its crunchy panko coating and creamy melted mozzarella middle.

mozzeria pork torchon
pork torchon, pickled cabbage, hot coppa

A changing roster of daily specials illustrates Mozzeria's commitment to trying out new dishes: such as a crispy pork torchon atop pickled cabbage alongside hot coppa.

mozzeria gnocchi
gnocchi, Bolognese, ricotta

The menu lists two pastas; Japanese Pumpkin Ravioli and house made Gnocchi, which delivered mouth-melting puffy clouds draped with savory Bolognese sauce, dotted with ricotta.

Mozzeria salmon
fish and fingerlings in salsa verde with fried capers

My favorite small plate on several visits was the salmon and fingerling potatoes dressed with an intense salsa verde studded with deep fried capers. They have since upgraded to a more sustainable arctic char, using the same irresistible preparation.

mozzeria limoncello
Limoncello truffle

Of the four desserts on the menu, two are standouts: the limoncello truffle, with its lemon gelato encrusted with crushed meringue, resembling a sweet futuristic planet and the velvety panna cotta topped with chopped hazelnuts and a balsamic splash .

mozzeria brunch
Bellini and Eggs Benedict pizza with eggplant

Weekend brunch features standard breakfast fare, with occasional inspirations. I found their eggs benedict pizza a satisfying synergy (served with choice of eggplant, mushroom or prosciutto), made even better with a lemon raspberry bellini.

While Mozzeria proudly holds the distinction of being San Francisco’s first deaf-owned restaurant, the Steins prefer that the focus remains on their food. There is no posted sign to alert customers that many of the employees are deaf. Melody and Russ toyed with the idea of putting an explanatory sheet about Deaf culture in the menu or name tags on the servers identifying who was deaf or hearing, but dropped these as unnecessary. Basically, they believe, if patrons enter with an open mind, the communication will work itself out -- and it usually does.

This low-profile set-up stands in contrast to probably the first, and definitely the most famous deaf-run dining establishment in the world, Café Signes in Paris, which I visited shortly after its opening in 2003. The cafe's menu comes with an explanation of culturally appropriate tips -- in Deaf culture, not French culture -- for attracting your server's attention. The list is a great example of the universality of much of Deaf Culture* (the sign languages, by the way, are different in each country). A waving hand, a stomp on the floor, a slight tap on the arm, the toss of a light object within the visual field, instituting a chain of taps among neighbors around the room will all work as attention getting devices. But in the end, Cafe Signes installed small light signals at each table so diners need only flick a switch to get a refill of their coffee (oops, French waiters don't customarily refill coffee cups).

At Mozzeria, having servers who can all sign (regardless of their own hearing status) makes for an accessible “deaf-friendly” environment. It also carries side benefits for hearing diners. In many restaurants, attempting to get the server's attention for a simple glass of water can often feel like trying to flag down a racer at the Indy 500. Since the eyes are such an important part of Deaf culture, however, most deaf people are especially attuned to visual cues. I was thrilled to find that to attract my server’s attention at Mozzeria, even from the other end of the long narrow space, all I needed to do was to establish eye contact and raise a finger or even an eyebrow. Hearing customers also seem to appreciate the relatively low noise level which permits actual conversations with their tablemates. (Mozzeria's hearing employees do set background music nightly, but it is never overbearing).

While Mozzeria has become  a new San Francisco must-visit-destination for deaf visitors from across America and around the world, both deaf and hearing diners probably care more about chowing down on some awesome pizza and all signs point to the fact that this is what you'll find at Mozzeria. In the end, it might not matter that much who made it all possible. Indeed, a recent Yelper (who failed to mention if he had been enjoying some of their well chosen beer on tap or glasses of Italian wine) didn’t even realize that the staff was mostly deaf, “thought they were just being all Italian, waving their arms around and such.”

Address: Map
3228 16th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103
Phone: (415) 489-0963
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 5:30pm-10pm, Friday-Sunday 5:30pm-11pm,  Sat. and Sun. Brunch 11am-3pm, (Closed Mondays)
Twitter: @MozzeriaSF

Facebook: Mozzeria


* For more information and resources about Deaf Culture visit Deaf Culture THAT (Disclosure: this new website is a project of the author and her longtime collaborator, Dr. Thomas K. Holcomb).