Restaurateurs Melody and Russ Stein, founders of San Francisco-based Neapolitan-style pizzeria Mozzeria, met as students at Gallaudet University in 1995. Now, 15 years later, the restaurant has opened its second location near their alma mater on H Street Northeast, with a completely deaf and hard-of-hearing team.
“The whole goal was to create opportunities for deaf people. That was kind of the main dream. Not just jobs, but careers. What we deaf people tend to say is: skills are always there, just not the opportunities,” says Mozzeria CEO Ryan Maliszewski, who communicated with Washingtonian in American Sign Language through an interpreter.
While Mozzeria is open to hiring hearing staff as well, all will be required to know American Sign Language. The restaurant had hoped to draw more employees from Gallaudet, but classes are taking place virtually for now. At the same time, Maliszewski points out that DC area is home to the largest deaf population in the country.
Beyond the many struggles of operating a restaurant during a pandemic, masks add an extra challenge for deaf staff and patrons. So, the company invited a professor from Gallaudet who specializes in gestural communication—using eyebrows, eyes, and the whole body—to work with the team. They have gestures for temperature checks and letting people know the pizzas take 90 seconds to cook. Maliszewski notes it’s not so different from the kind of animated gesturing Italians are known for.
Core Architecture + Design also designed the bright and obstruction-free space with deaf people in mind. “The idea is to create a highly visual and open space where people can communicate via sign across the room without barriers—to create as porous an environment as possible,” Maliszewski says.
The San Francisco restaurant has a Verace Pizza Napoletana certification, meaning everything is made to strict traditional Neapolitan standards. The DC outpost does not have the certification but the pizzas are made in the traditional style. The double wood-fired oven imported from Naples—dubbed the “doppio beast”—cooks the pies at 1,000 degrees. An impressive-looking 12,000-pound Acunto Mario oven also apparently attracts a lot of snapshots, so the restaurant has created a dedicated “selfie zone.” A three-foot circle on the floor marks where to stand, and diners are encouraged to post a photo on social media with the hashtag #MozzeriaDC.
In addition to the classic marinara and margherita pies, look out for pizzas topped with mushrooms, chevre, and truffle oil or Italian sausage, fennel, and white garlic sauce. The restaurant imports mozzarella di bufala from Italy, but it also makes its own fresh mozzarella. The housemade cheese is used for the fried panko-crusted “Mozzeria bar”—basically a glorified mozzarella stick. “We call it a bar of gold,” Maliszewski says.
The team is also looking to create a signature pizza for DC. “We’ve got all kinds of ideas floating around. You know, maybe some fried chicken with mumbo sauce. Maybe pork belly,” Maliszewski says. They’re also trying to highlight local breweries and distilleries for Italian-inspired cocktails.
Mozzeria is open for takeout and delivery only to start. For now, they’re partnering with GrubHub, but down the line, they’re looking to use deaf drivers as well. The restaurant has also applied for an outdoor parklet and plans to eventually open up the dining room, which can seat 40 to 50 under current restrictions.
There will be several options for placing an order: online, via tablets, and with good old fashioned pen and paper or gesturing. The restaurant is testing out a system where diners scan a QR code which will lead to a site with videos to learn the sign for each pizza name. But Maliszewski says the ultimately goal is to teach the public something bigger than that.
“I really want to see deaf employees earn the respect that they deserve, so that when somebody walks in that doesn’t sign, they see that deaf people can do everything from owning a restaurant to bartending to cooking,” Maliszewski says.
Mozzeria. 1300 H St., NE.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that the DC restaurant has a Verace Pizza Napoletana certification, meaning everything is made to strict traditional Neapolitan standards. However, only the San Francisco location currently has the certification.