A Certified Neapolitan Pizzeria That Employs Deaf Workers Opens Friday on H Street NE

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Mozzeria, a Neapolitan-style pizzeria from San Francisco that’s run entirely by deaf or hard-of-hearing workers, opens a new D.C. outpost tomorrow on H Street NE.

The pizza shop on the ground floor of the new Baldwin apartment complex (1300 H Street NE) sells wood-fired pies, Italian cocktails, and fried bars of breaded mozzarella. The sun-filled space will start out with takeout and delivery. Customers can place orders online or at the restaurant.

Opening a restaurant during a public health crisis is a feat in itself, but putting workers in protective masks presents unique challenges for Mozzeria.

“It’s critical to use body language, eyebrows, and basic gestures for things like ‘good’ and ‘welcome,’” Mozzeria CEO Ryan Maliszewski says. “It’s part of our goal here to create a positive visual experience to all of our customers.” An interpreter helped Eater conduct an interview with Maliszewski, who communicated in American Sign Language. Mozzeria brought in a professor this week to conduct a gestural workshop to help employees sort out communication hurdles they may face while wearing masks.

Mozzeria CEO Ryan Maliszewski
Samuel Sandoval/Mozzeria

The nucleus of Mozzeria’s new shop is a 10,000-pound pizza oven with two adjoining domes. The shop’s 12-inch pies cook for about 90 seconds in 1,000-degree heat. Mozzeria is a member of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, an international organization that certifies Neapolitan pizzerias.

“I am pretty sure we are the only dual wood-burning oven in D.C. We call it the doppio beast,” Mozzeria project and operations manager Amy Salter says via an interpreter.

The shop’s tile-lined ovens, handmade in Naples, will present a big photo op. A designated “selfie zone” lets customers snap a shot before walking out with their to-go orders.

The 94-seat D.C. location is nearly twice the size of its 9-year-old original location in the Mission District, a hip neighborhood known for its tiny and narrow restaurants. Signature pizzas from San Francisco include a Peking duck and shiitake mushroom pie. A D.C.-specific flavor is in the works, Salter says. The opening menu on H Street includes familiar options for Italian sausage, margherita, and salumi pizzas.

A 12-inch pie at Mozzeria.
Mozzeria/official photo

One best-selling appetizer coming over from the West Coast is a fried mozzarella “bar” plated on pomodoro sauce.

“Not sticks, but a literal bar of mozzarella,” Salter says. “It’s just gorgeous, covered in a panko crust. It’s to die for.”

Other options include eggplant Parmesan, a cheese and charcuterie platter, burrata, salads, and bombolino (Italian doughnuts). An Italian cocktail program includes an Aperol spritz, a Negroni, and a limoncello martini. The bar is stocked with local distillers One Eight, Republic Restoratives, Cotton & Reed, and Don Ciccio.

In 2017, Mozzeria partnered with the CSD Social Venture Fund, the first deaf-led social venture fund in the country, with the goal of scaling the business beyond its home base in San Francisco. The H Street NE corridor was a natural pick for Mozzeria’s second restaurant due to its proximity to Gallaudet University, a liberal arts university for deaf and hard-of-hearing students; Mozzeria’s founders, couple Melody Stein and Russ Stein, also met at the university.

The brand is starting out lean, with eight employees, during the pandemic. The goal is to bulk up staff with Gallaudet University students once the campus comes to life again, as well as serve lunch there from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

D.C.-based design studio CORE architecture + design employed “DeafSpace” principles with strategic window placement, lighting, and seating to maximize the visual experience for customers and employees.

“We have a very open space that’s porous and has a lot of natural light, and at the same time, not too bright to where there’s a glare and strain on the eyes,” says Maliszewski.
Ron Ngiam/CORE architecture + design

At Mozzeria, diners communicate with servers using ASL symbols that correspond to menu items. Starbucks opened its first U.S. Signing Store a few blocks away at 6th and H Street NE in 2018, with a requirement that all employees be proficient in ASL.

Mozzeria will use GrubHub for deliveries to start but is exploring the idea of hiring a team of deaf delivery drivers to further support the community. Mozzeria has a pizza truck in San Francisco, but there are no plans to bring one to D.C.

For its opening weekend, Mozzeria will operate from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday to Sunday. Limited hours going forward will be 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday with a 10 p.m. close on Friday and weekends. A weekend brunch starting at 11 a.m. includes to-go mimosa kits and a farm egg pizza with Yukon potatoes, spinach, prosciutto, brown sugar-shallots.

Mozzeria’s soaring facade.
Samuel Sandoval/Mozzeria

Management plans to monitors COVID-19 stats week to week before letting diners sit inside at limited capacity. The brand is no stranger to navigating volatile environments. The San Francisco location had to close a few times when the city mandated retrofitting as a safety precaution against earthquakes.

“We basically had to let go of all our employees, change hours, move everything to the truck and look for temporary locations,” Maliszewski says.” I was telling the team the other day if we can make it through this [pandemic] I feel like we can do anything,” he says.

Opening over Labor Day weekend fits in with the brand’s overarching goal to generate jobs for the deaf community, he says. According to a report last year from the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes, only 53.3 percent of deaf people ages 25 to 64 were employed in 2017, compared to an employment rate of 75.8 percent for hearing people.

“We are all about changing customers’ perceptions from the minute they walk in the door,” Maliszewski says. “I want them to see that deaf people can be managers, bartenders, and pizza makers.”

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