No one ever complains that dining at Mozzeria is too loud. In fact, the popular wood-fired pizza restaurant in San Francisco's Mission neighborhood is often full of diners, clustered around the Stefano Ferrara pizza oven at its heart. But even when every table is full, noise is never a problem.
That's because Mozzeria's main language is American Sign Language.
"Mozzeria is a pizzeria, but at the same time, we're known as a deaf-centric, deaf-owned and deaf-operated restaurant," says manager Bentley Fink. "Our mission is to provide job opportunities for the deaf and hard-of-hearing."
At Mozzeria, opened in 2011 by Melody and Russell Stein, the servers, managers and pizza-slingers all use sign language to communicate with each other. They chat back and forth with patrons using a mixture of ASL, lipreading, writing and informal signs for those who may not be fluent in sign language.
"The experience of coming into a deaf-owned restaurant is unique," Fink says. "We celebrate deaf culture, we create the rules from communication and encourage others to accommodate to our way of communication."
You don't have to be deaf or hard-of-hearing to eat at Mozzeria; employees like Yordi Morales, a server and pizza-maker, are happy to help bridge the gap.
"I love it because I always greet people and show them I can still communicate," he says. "We interact, and I make sure they are comfortable. We write back and forth, or they learn to sign with me. I always enjoy making sure they have an eye-opening experience."
Eating at Mozzeria as a hearing person might be a unique experience, but for the employees and patrons of Mozzeria who communicate primarily through ASL or lipreading, the pizza restaurant feels like home.
"I've been to Mozzeria three times, and it's cool," says a patron named Jennifer. "I just walk in and sign like I'm in my own world. It's like my home and these are my family and friends. We sign everything—we don't have to feel trapped or unable to communicate."
That's a refreshing feeling for patrons and employees alike.
"My prior work experience was challenging," says Morales. "I had to write notes back and forth, and was limited by my speaking ability. It was very isolating."
Amanda Mosher has been working at Mozzeria for five years, but says that about 70 percent of deaf people have a hard time finding a job. "Employers don't know how to communicate with deaf employees," she says. "Many hearing people think that deaf people can't do anything: can't drive, work or have a real career. We can do all of those things just as any human could. We're just humans," she says with a shrug.
When the Steins opened Mozzeria, they set it up in a way that was conducive to franchising. Mozzeria already has two food trucks that serve up pizzas you order in ASL, and Mosher and others dream of opening more Mozzerias around the country to bring that 70 percent statistic down to 10 percent or less.
"As deaf individuals, we'll always have great barriers to overcome," says Fink. "That's the beauty of this restaurant. We went against the common misconception that deaf people can't do this or that."
Of course, it helps that the pizza is delicious. Long lines frequently form outside the two food trucks, and it's helpful to have a reservation when wanting to dine at Mozzeria.
"We can all be successful," says Morales. "Deaf people can open their own businesses, achieve their goals and capture their dreams. It doesn't matter what barriers are in place. Food sends a universal message."
Mozzeria is a deaf-owned and operated pizzeria that serves wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizza in San Francisco's Mission neighborhood, and out of two mobile pizza trucks in the San Francisco area. www.mozzeria.com