The sad parade of pandemic restaurant closures marches on, and the latest is Mozzeria on 16th Street. It's a particularly sad closure for the Bay Area Deaf community, given that this was one of the only Deaf-owned and operated restaurants in the country.
While hearing customers typically outnumbered Deaf customers during Mozzeria's nine years, the restaurant had become a touchstone and favorite birthday celebration spot for Deaf people in San Francisco and beyond. As writer Anna Mindess writes on KQED's website this week, "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."
Owners Melody and Russ Stein opened Mozzeria in late 2011, and it was the fulfillment of a dream to own a restaurant that was staffed entirely by Deaf servers and cooks. The pair met in graduate school at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., one of the only universities in the world that caters specifically to Deaf students.
Melody's parents are longtime SF restaurateurs, and she grew up here — her parents, after realizing both Melody and her brother were Deaf, relocated to the Bay Area from Hong Kong so that they could attend California School for the Deaf in Fremont). And as she told the Washington Post last year, she was rejected from cooking school because of her deafness, which delayed her restaurant dreams for a time.
"[They said] What if they were in the kitchen trying to yell, ‘Out of the way!’ with hot soup? They viewed me as a liability," Stein says.
But the Steins knew that they could find success making Neapolitan pizzas and creating a welcoming place for both Deaf and hearing pizza-lovers — and as Russ Stein told KQED in the interview below, not long after the restaurant opened it was exciting just being able to give Deaf people perhaps the first opportunity in their lives to ask questions about a menu.
"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."
Mozzeria will still have a presence in the Bay Area, albeit a roving one: The popular Mozzeria pizza truck will continue operating around the region, and you can track its schedule here.
Company CEO Ryan Maliszewski tells KQED that they are also considering a "Mozzeria Food Truck Tour," which will bring the truck through the Pacific Northwest and Southern California as well.
Thanks to funding from their former school, via the California School for the Deaf Venture Fund, the Steins already began looking to expand the Mozzeria brand nationwide. A scheduled spring opening of the second Mozzeria in Washington D.C. was delayed, but the restaurant just opened there in September, blocks away from Gallaudet University.