Upon walking into H Street’s Mozzeria, you’re most likely to be drawn to their pizza oven. The larger-than-average oven clocks in at around 12,000 pounds and is emblazoned with the name of the District by way of the Bay Area spot. And while the oven is perhaps the most immediately striking visual element, there’s something else at play that sets Mozzeria apart from other restaurants – and even other Neapolitan pizza joints.
The open layout and bright, inviting lights, while surely aesthetically pleasing, serve an important purpose at the restaurant, which opened September 4. Mozzeria is the District’s first Deaf-owned and operated restaurant, and these and other design elements allow for an optimal communication environment for the Deaf staff members who make and serve authentic Neapolitan pizza.
“We were really excited by the opportunity to work with [Mozzeria] to create a space that really embraces DeafSpace design principles,” says Allison Cooke, principal and director of hospitality design at CORE architecture + design, the firm Mozzeria partnered with to design the pizzeria’s D.C. location and lay the framework for future expansions of the restaurant.
DeafSpace refers to a set of design principles established over the course of five years by architect Hansel Bauman of HBHM Architecture and the ASL Deaf Studies department at D.C.’s own Gallaudet University. The guidelines include five major elements essential to Deaf communication that allow those who sign to do so with more ease and accessibility, including space and proximity, sensory reach, mobility and proximity, light and color, and acoustics.
“It really opened our eyes to different ways to communicate design in general,” says Cooke of working with the Mozzeria team on the project. “Of course, we read through the DeafSpace design principles, but there are things that are really specific to restaurants, such as the exchange between seating guests at tables and what that looks like with the visual openness of a restaurant. From a staffing perspective, it’s looking at how the employees, chefs and bartenders communicate with one another. The Mozzeria team really played a strong role in saying, ‘Here are the challenges with our San Francisco space, and here’s what we need going forward.’”
Mozzeria’s CEO Ryan Maliszewski notes that Cooke and her team did a great job of modernizing what the original spot had on the West Coast and bringing the new location to life through the colors, openness and overall design of the space. He also notes the double oven’s eye-catching size and impressive ability to cook their pizzas in 90 seconds. Mozzeria was able to expand their restaurant and share their authentic pizza with the District thanks to a partnership with the CSD Social Venture Fund, the first Deaf-led social venture fund in the country.
“D.C. is a thriving foodie city, and we knew we’d have a lot more foot traffic here in comparison to San Francisco,” he says. “We wanted to make a significant investment with the double oven. It’s the focal point, spotlight and nerve center of our restaurant.”
Maliszewski, who joined the Mozzeria team as CEO earlier this year, has lived in D.C. since 2002 and notes several important elements that made the nation’s capital a great place for Mozzeria to set up shop for its second location. The District, he explains, is home to one of the largest Deaf populations in the U.S. due to the presence of Gallaudet University, and the federal government is one of the largest employers of Deaf people in general. Maliszewski himself used to work for the FBI. Mozzeria’s founders, Melody and Russ Stein, also attended Gallaudet, adding another layer of connection to the new restaurant, which is located just blocks away from the school.
However, unemployment within the Deaf community is a challenge, with about a 70 percent unemployment or underemployment rate. Mozzeria hopes to change that not only in the District, but throughout the country. They already have their sights set on new locations (Austin, another city with a large Deaf population and burgeoning culinary scene, is in talks to be home for a third location) and aim to open two new restaurants a year.
“I really see our team becoming excited about viewing Mozzeria as a springboard to help improve their soft skills: conflict resolution, negotiation skills, teamwork, team building [and] collaboration, and leadership skills, because often they’re not afforded those opportunities,” Maliszewski adds. “There’s always been talent there. They just haven’t had the opportunities. It’s something exciting to see that Mozzeria is branded as a Deaf restaurant, and we’re having more of a presence in the food scene. There are opportunities being created for them by way of being a part of Mozzeria.”
Maliszewski and the whole team are also excited about their H Street location and hope to collaborate with other local businesses and become a friendly neighborhood spot for great pizza for all: Deaf, hard of hearing and hearing alike. Their San Francisco location has a signature duck pizza, and the D.C. team is hard at work in the kitchen crafting a signature pizza that represents the city paired with their authentic Neapolitan style. In the meantime, their pies are available for pickup and delivery and include classics like Margherita and Italian sausage.
“We hope to continue [as] a source of inspiration for our customers from the minute they walk into our door,” Maliszewski says, looking toward the future. “There’s the misconception of having broken ears or broken hearing [but] I think we’re the most intuitive, visual people because we have lost a major sensory input. Because we can’t hear, there’s a huge gain. All of our other senses are amplified and heightened.”
He continues of his team, present and future, “We bring a lot of value to a lot of things in life, as far as employment opportunities go. I’m hoping this restaurant can represent that, not just for our customers but also for our employees, in knowing they can actually take these skills they learned and put them to good use after their experience working with Mozzeria.”
To check out the full menu or place an order for pickup or delivery, visit www.mozzeria.com. Mozzeria is open Tuesday through Thursday from 4- 9 p.m., Friday from 4-10 p.m., Saturday from 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. For the latest, follow Mozzeria @eatmozzeria on Twitter and Instagram.
1300 H St. NE, DC; www.mozzeria.com/washington-dc
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