I’ve interviewed a Spanish paella chef who makes house calls and an Ethiopian restaurateur who taught me how to eat with my hands. But when I heard about Mozzeria, I was thrilled. Thanks to the deaf community, which has shared its expressive language with me, I also work as an American Sign Language interpreter, allowing me insight into the Steins’ almost-year-old enterprise.
Theirs is one of a handful of deaf-owned restaurants around the country and a first for the city. Yet the Steins have chosen to play down the deaf aspect. There are no posted signs announcing that diners have entered a deaf environment. In fact, it’s easy for a hearing diner to miss the subtle hand movements in conversations scattered around the room. That’s fine with the couple, who prefer that the focus remains on their food.
They met in 1995 at a fraternity party when they were graduate business administration students at Gallaudet. Retired professor Pat Johanson remembers the pair who took her management and marketing classes.
“They were opposites,” says Johanson. “Russ was a very participative student — always had something to say in class, a fun and engaging person, with street smarts and book smarts. Melody was very quiet, but she was there in every class, paying attention, taking notes conscientiously and got excellent grades. I remember her telling me that her dream was to have a restaurant.”
“We spent our first date on the town, hitting bars and restaurants,” Melody says. With a wink she signs, “We began in an Italian restaurant in Union Station and ended with a 2 a.m. breakfast at a Greek diner.”
That set the tone for what was to come. Throughout their 15 years of marriage, 10 of which were spent working at a nonprofit organization in South Dakota, Melody hoped she would get to follow in her parents’ footsteps and open a restaurant.
“When I told Russ my parents ran a restaurant in San Francisco, he thought it was one of those touristy Chinese American restaurants with red lanterns that serve chow mein,” Melody said teasingly with a warm glance at her husband. Francis and Anna Tsai moved their family and their elegant Wu Kong restaurant from Hong Kong to San Francisco to give their two deaf children the best education. They eventually sold the place in 1998 but “couldn’t stay retired” and opened Shanghai Restaurant earlier this year.
If Melody has Chinese cooking in her genes, Russell has pizza in his blood. He’s a New Yorker whose family devoured cheesy slices almost daily. The compromise was to run a restaurant that serves small plates and Neapolitan pizza baked in an imported Stefano Ferrara wood-burning oven.