DC’s first deaf-owned-and-operated restaurant opens on H Street

Mozzeria debuted its handcrafted Neapolitan-style pizza on Sept. 4

DC’s first deaf-owned-and-operated restaurant opens on H Street
CEO Ryan Maliszewski signs "Mozzeria" in American Sign Language. Mozzeria opened on H Street on Sept. 4th.

When customers first walk through the doors of Mozzeria, they are greeted by a massive, double wood-burning oven, handmade in Naples, Italy. While the smell of handcrafted pizza and the casual dining setting seems like any ordinary pizzeria, Mozzeria has much more to offer.

Mozzeria, D.C.’s first deaf-owned-and-operated restaurant, opened on Sept. 4 on H Street. This is the second of two locations for the company. The first location opened in 2011 in San Francisco. Founders Melody and Russ Stein created the pizzeria to create employment opportunities for deaf and hard of hearing individuals. 

Years later, CEO Ryan Maliszewski brought the same vision to the District where he and the Steins attended college together at Gallaudet University. D.C. is home to a large Deaf population, Maliszewski said, which makes it the perfect spot for Mozzeria’s second location.

“I felt that H Street ... is the ideal place because of its proximity to Gallaudet University, as well as the diverse community there,” Maliszewski said.

Maliszewski and his staff, who are all deaf or hard of hearing, want to bring customers a unique experience while ordering their pizza. The restaurant's space is designed as an open, mobile concept with moveable chairs and tables. When customers walk in, they have the option to point or gesture to items on the menu, or they can use American Sign Language if they’re comfortable. Front of house staff either write back and forth with customers or type on their phones to communicate. 

Though it's an untraditional ordering experience, Maliszewski hopes that this makes the impact deeper. 

“I wanted customers, when they walk into the restaurant, to change their perspective on deaf people — to understand the culture, American Sign Language, Deaf people’s way of being and using nonverbal communication,” he said. “The environment creates a visual experience.”

Providing these types of employment opportunities is important to change the stigma that deaf people “belong in the kitchen” or “in the back of the house,” Maliszewski said. With this concept, Mozzeria’s employees are the forefront of the business model. 

“We have been given the short-end of the stick typically in terms of opportunities,” he said. “So we’re trying to change that mindset, that perspective, that deaf people can do anything except hear.”

Maliszewski said that he has three goals for customer experience: respect for their company during the opening stages during the pandemic, a change in perspective and, perhaps most importantly, that they enjoy the food.

Maliszewski’s favorite menu item is the Italian sausage pizza, complete with red onion, fennel, white garlic sauce and fresh mozzarella that’s made in-house. He also recommended the Mozzeria Bar, a stretchy cheese bar coated in breadcrumbs.

Aside from the typical complications of opening a new restaurant, Mozzeria is beginning operations in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Mozzeria is only open for take-out and delivery, but Maliszewski said that he hopes to expand to outdoor seating in the future. For now, safety is the priority, he said. 

“Of course we’re trying to reimagine how we communicate as humans — using nonverbal communication and gestures because we’re all wearing masks,” Maliszewski said. “I’m hoping that Mozzeria can be that catalyst for change in terms of people’s mindsets of how to frame communication with each other.”

cmulroy@theeagleonline.com 

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