Melody Stein grew up in restaurants.
Not only did her parents own and operate a Chinese eatery in San Francisco, but the family — all of them foodies — also constantly went out to eat. Stein still remembers the excitement of sampling Japanese, Vietnamese and French food for the first time. There was only one thing she wanted to do when she reached college age: attend the California Culinary Academy. Then, she wanted to open her own restaurant.
That’s when her deafness almost defeated her dreams.
“[The Academy] called my mom and said we can’t accept her application because she’s deaf,” Stein, 45, signed to The Washington Post via an interpreter in a recent interview. “What if they were in the kitchen trying to yell, ‘Out of the way!’ with hot soup? They viewed me as a liability."
It took her about 20 years, but Stein proved them wrong. Today, she co-owns and runs Mozzeria, a Neapolitan-style pizzeria in San Francisco, with her husband, Russ Stein, 47, who is also deaf. But it’s not just a pizza joint. In part to ensure others do not suffer what Melody did, the couple employ only deaf individuals to run their pizzeria and its two associated food trucks.
Now, the Steins’ pizzeria-with-a-purpose is coming to Washington. Bolstered by an investment of several million dollars from the Communication Service for the Deaf Social Venture Fund, Mozzeria will open a second restaurant at 1300 H St. NE in spring 2020. (California Culinary Academy closed in 2017, though Melody Stein said it began accepting deaf students a few years after she applied.)
Russ Stein signed in a recent interview that the H Street location is especially meaningful because it is near Gallaudet University, the world-renowned school for the deaf and hard of hearing in Northeast Washington. Both the Steins attended Gallaudet, which is where they met.
“It’s been a longtime dream to see a deaf-owned restaurant in Washington, D.C.,” Russ Stein signed through an interpreter in a joint interview with his wife.
Mozzeria may be run by people who are deaf, but it caters to pizza fans of all kinds, hearing and not. Diners communicate their orders to waiters either by signing (if they know sign language), pointing or using paper and pens, which lie ready on every table.
The chance at employment Mozzeria offers those who are deaf is sorely needed in the United States. There are roughly 30 million Americans with severe hearing loss in both ears, and the Washington area is home to a significant deaf population. Employment rates among the deaf lag far behind those among hearing individuals: 48 percent of deaf people are employed, compared with 72 percent of the hearing population, according to a 2016 study conducted by the National Deaf Center and the University of Texas at Austin.
Deaf people confront damaging stereotypes in the workplace that can disrupt their careers or even prevent their hiring, according to Communication Service for the Deaf chief executive Christopher Soukup, who is deaf. People think because someone cannot hear, they are incapable of handling high-stakes jobs — which is false in most cases, Soukup said.
“That’s why Mozzeria is so important,” Soukup said. “The more we can put those success stories out there, brick by brick we can combat that perception.”
Still, as much as it is about fighting statistics and changing the narrative, it is also about pizza.
Mozzeria’s San Francisco restaurant sells a wide range, all fired on a 5,000-pound traditional Italian oven (“our baby,” said Russ Stein). Customers feeling adventurous might try the “Peking Duck” pizza, which is covered with spring onions, hoisin sauce and cucumbers. Those in the mood for the traditional could stick with the “Margherita”: fresh mozzarella, grana padano cheese, pomodoro sauce and basil.
Typically, the Steins split menu responsibilities: She focuses on the more unusual, creative dishes (the Peking Duck was her creation), while he sticks to the classics. It’s a division that plays to each partner’s strengths as a cook, both said.
The Mozzeria in Washington will have slightly different offerings tailored to the sensibilities of East Coasters, according to the couple. They’re still finalizing the details, but Russ Stein hopes there’s at least one item on the menu: a meatball-heavy pizza of his own invention.
After growing up in New York City and “eating pizza every day,” he was disappointed the meatball pizza failed in San Francisco. (For the week or so it remained on the menu, Mozzeria sold just three.) He is optimistic D.C. residents will be more receptive.
The Mozzeria in Washington will also be larger than its San Francisco sister. While the California one seats about 50 customers and requires 15 full-time employees, the D.C. location will seat roughly 100 people and need at least 30 waiters, chefs and hosts. The Steins will continue to live in San Francisco, but they plan to fly out for the opening next year. Their new restaurant will sit just seven blocks from the first deaf-run Starbucks signing store, which opened in October 2018.
As they prepare for the big day, the couple will continue to test out new pizza ideas on one another. It’s something they’ve done since the start of Mozzeria back in 2009. The two were both working in consulting at the time, but Melody Stein never forgot her aspiration to open a restaurant.
One day, the pair sat down and decided, “If we don’t do it now, we’re never going to do it,” she said. They would open a pizzeria because Russ Stein loves pizza, and they would call it Mozzeria because he is obsessed with mozzarella cheese.
Melody Stein flew to Italy to participate in two training programs on how to make Neapolitan-style pizza. (Today, Mozzeria is officially recognized for its authenticity by the international Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana.) Her husband, meanwhile, built an oven in the backyard.
After a lot of practice, and a lot of time spent raising money from friends and acquaintances, the two opened Mozzeria’s doors for business in 2011. It proved popular among diners and critics, earning rave reviews from local news outlets and 4.5 stars out of 5 from Zagat. It also required 18-hour workdays.
Now, things are a little less hectic. The couple can trust their well-trained employees in San Francisco to manage most daily tasks, though both still love spending time in the kitchen.
So they’re thinking bigger: They want to expand to other cities. No matter how far afield they range, though, one thing will remain constant: all deaf employees, all the time. Apart from everything else, Russ Stein said, the hiring policy actually gives Mozzeria a competitive advantage.
“We’re good at making sure our customer experience is a good one because we’re excellent at reading their body language,” he said. “There’s nothing more powerful than seeing that customer smile after eating that pizza."