Melody Stein’s hands stay mighty busy at Mozzeria, the Neapolitan pizza and small-plates restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District. They make the dough, help create recipes and e-mail vendors. They concoct the hoisin sauce that tops the popular roast duck pie.
Her hands also convey most of what she has to say to the staff and diners each day as co-owner with her husband, Russell. The couple is deaf — alums of Gallaudet University, where they met.
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.
Before Mozzeria’s opening in December 2011, Russ set up a wood-fired oven in the couple’s San Francisco back yard and practiced making pizzas for two years. Melody traveled to Italy, where she learned to make pasta in Rome and pizza in Sorrento and Positano.
The San Francisco Chronicle has praised Mozzeria’s pizza crust for its flavor, char and chewy texture. Melody describes the restaurant’s menu as “modern Italian with global influences” — evident in dishes such as Japanese pumpkin ravioli, the duck pizza and their signature Mozzeria Bar, a panko-crusted ingot of Melody’s mozzarella with a velvety, oozing middle. Their seasonal list of small plates, she explains, is reminiscent of her Chinese culture’s tradition of sharing, which she hopes will encourage diners to try new tastes. For example, chef Bryan Baker recently created a four-course tasting menu that included goat consomme and vanilla goat cheese ice cream.
Baker, who can hear, has worked at Mozzeria for seven months. He and Melody communicate via cellphone text, iPad or shorthand on the kitchen’s whiteboard. “It’s been a bit of a challenge to write everything down, especially when you’re in a rush,” he says. “It makes you think about what you’re writing and get to the point quickly.”
The chef is learning American Sign Language, and has found humor in signs that look similar, such as the ones for “goat” and “stupid.”
“The signs are the same except that the palm is reversed,” he says. “So I’m sure I was talking about goat and probably signed ‘stupid’ instead.” Melody figured it out, he says.
The restaurant’s cozy, narrow space in a historic 1908 building seats 48 and is almost always filled with a mix of deaf and hearing diners. That’s a big part of the charm of dining at Mozzeria, where most members of the wait staff are deaf. All of them sign, in an affable and animated fashion, and communication occurs between signers and non-signers through gestures, pointing or writing notes.
Russell emphasizes that this “deaf-friendly” atmosphere provides unique access for deaf diners compared with the restaurant norm. He signs passionately to describe the isolation he felt when he and his deaf family would go out to eat.
“We were the only deaf people in the restaurant and would just nod politely as the waiter rattled off the specials, which we, of course, missed. It’s a thrill to see deaf diners have in-depth discussions with the waiters here about ingredients in our dishes. This is a first for many deaf people.”
Mozzeria’s approach contrasts that of the most famous deaf-run dining establishment in the world, Cafe Signes in Paris. The cafe’s menu comes with a printed explanation of appropriate ways to attract your deaf waiter’s attention, including waving your hand, stomping on the floor or tossing a light object within their visual field. Each table at Cafe Signes is equipped with a small light flasher, so diners need only to flick a switch to order another espresso or tarte tatin.
Like Cafe Signes, news of deaf-run Mozzeria has quickly spread across the global “deaf grapevine,” attracting deaf visitors from Japan, Sweden, Australia, China, Brazil and Italy. Melody recalls a group of deaf Italians who were Gallaudet students, visiting San Francisco during their winter break.
“They accidentally walked into Mozzeria without realizing that a deaf couple owned it,” she says. “After perusing the menu, the students thought it looked Italian enough to give it a try. They were surprised to see us signing and got excited about the Stefano Ferrara oven — something familiar from their home country. . . . They gave us a big thumbs up.”