Mozzeria pizzeria on 16th Street in San Francisco’s Mission District seems like any other pizza joint from the outside looking in. Unassuming sign, simple door, narrow long room, tables full, a line of patrons waiting to be seated, and wait staff bustling about. The noise-level inside is subdued, but unless one is very observant, you may not even notice the out-of-the-ordinary experience provided by dining at Mozzeria. Not until the hostess greets you do you begin to realize this is not your everyday pizza joint.
She was smiling, looking intently at us, and then she pointed to the reservation sheet. We pointed to our name and she silently raised two fingers, confirming the number in our party. We nodded and she held up her hand in a kind of stop sign gesture for us to wait, then touched her chin quickly and bustled off. Not a word was exchanged. She tapped information into a tablet, and then she began using American Sign Language with a waitress who quickly cleared our table and motioned for us to sit. Menus were placed and our hostess returned, motioning to her mouth in a drinking gesture, as she looked first at me and then at Therese. It is at this point we realized we were in for a remarkable and wonderful cultural dining experience.
Mouthwatering gourmet pizzas
Melody and Russell Stein opened Mozzeria in 2011, making it the first deaf-owned and -operated restaurant in San Francisco and one of only a handful of such restaurants anywhere in the United States. Surprising perhaps but true. It quickly became a popular destination by both deaf and non-hearing-impaired customers alike, not to mention a required field trip for some students learning ASL. Why? Aside from the astounding cultural immersion, the pizzas and salads are just amazingly good.
Each Neapolitan-style pizza at Mozzeria is cooked in a 5,000-pound Stefano Ferrara wood-burning oven positioned in full view in the rear center of the narrow restaurant. It is fun to watch all the delicious pizza pies being prepared and then pushed into and — in what seems an endless stream of pizza goodness — pulled out of the hot oven.
And while on this evening we opted for basic pizza (I test a pizza restaurant’s quality often by ordering a standard margherita to truly taste the sauce, basil, and freshness of the crust and mozzarella – Mozzeria also adds grana padano), there are nods to Melody’s Hong Kong heritage on the menu with Hosui pear or even Peking duck pizza, which is topped with duck, hoisin, sesame seed, spring onion, and cucumber. Maybe next time.
Mozzeria pizzeria builds a bridge of understanding
There is absolutely nothing to be worried about if you don’t know sign language, although it does feel like a stranger in a strange land a first. Each table comes equipped with pen and paper for communicating and the entire wait staff, as well as the kitchen, are extremely friendly and accommodating, not to mention expert lip readers. We asked and were quickly taught the sign to make for thank you and please. All done with a smile and genuine warmth. If we had one wish, it would have been that we had thought to download the ASL app before arriving at the restaurant, so that perhaps we might have tried to communicate more in sign language. Click here to download the app.
We sat there, watching in awe as our meals were being prepared, sipping a cold Drakes IPA and gazing at the other tables along the wall behind and in front of us. The mix of patrons was remarkable and wonderful. There were tables where a combination of sign language and lip reading was going on. Some, where there was only sign language. Some, where only words were being spoken and no sign was used. And then the table next to us had a mother and her high school-age daughter who was, herself, learning sign language in school and had been told, as a class requirement, to come here and eat, ordering and communicating only in sign. Little wonder this restaurant has become so beloved, so quickly, down the street from the Mexican markets, burgeoning Mission street club scene, and strolling gawkers.
In fact, Mozzeria pizzeria became so successful, Melody and Russell bought and restored an old trolley that looks like one of the San Francisco cable cars and launched Mobile Neapolitan Pizzeria Trolley in 2014. Outfitted with a custom-built Stefan Ferraro oven, Mozzeria now appears at food festivals, public events, special events and corporate events. To see a schedule of where the trolley will appear, click here. Mozzeria…. The San Francisco treat! Ding ding!