San Francisco: Mozzeria
Mozzeria is a great spot for Neapolitan pizzas, both traditional and imaginative. They do everything right by using the best oven, wood, and ingredients. But what sets them apart is that the owners and many of the craftspeople and waitstaff involved in building and running the place are Deaf.
3228 16th Street, San Francisco CA 94110 (at Guerrero; map); mozzeria.com
Pizza style: Neapolitan-American
Oven type: Stefano Ferrara wood oven
The skinny: Really good Neapolitan pizza with fantastic crust made by Deaf folks
Price: Whole pizzas $12-18
Mozzeria is the work of Melody and Russ Stein. Melody grew up in the restaurant scene, but this is her first pizzeria. What Melody and Russ lack in experience, they make up in pizza IQ. They went big and splurged on a Stefano Ferrara oven, which is fed aromatic almond wood. Buffalo mozzarella from Italy, 00 flour, and plum tomatoes from here in California all demonstrate that Mozzeria understands that great pizza comes from great ingredients.
The Neapolitan pizza had a fantastic sauce that really made the pizza shine. It balanced notes of acidity and sweetness well without letting one overpower the other. The fresh basil and mozzarella played their parts well, complementing the sauce.
The winning element however, was the crust. Crispy on the outside, slightly chewy on the inside and not too doughy. The crust really stood out, and allowed the toppings to play effective supporting roles. Some parts of the crust were almost translucent, and covered in a delicious layer of olive oil.
Underneath, the crust featured some leopard-print spotting, without any excessive burning. This made the pizza firm without too much char or chewiness. My pizza was in a world class oven for the perfect amount of time.
I have never tasted better onions than I have on the pancetta, caramelized onions and mozzarella pizza. They had good acidity from the balsamic but maintained a caramelized sweetness. These onions were thick enough to maintain their juiciness, whereas most caramelized onions are thin and tend towards slimy. There was a definite peppery dose to them as well. Best of all, they covered the pizza. The pancetta and mozzarella were fine accents, but the onions stole the show.
Despite adding a flourish of green, the pesto on the eggplant, peppers and onion pizza didn't pack much flavor. Some folks at my table thought the basil added a lot of freshness, but it was too subtle for my palate. The subtle pesto allowed the awesome crust to play center stage, but it veered a little too close to "bread with stuff on it" territory.
The goat cheese pizza was headed in that direction as well until I had the pleasure of my first eggplant bite. Oh man. The eggplant had absorbed a ton of olive oil. Rich, creamy and luscious, the eggplant adopted the olive oil's best traits. The grape tomatoes and goat cheese were fine, nothing special. Luckily there was plenty of eggplant.
A review of Mozzeria wouldn't be complete without some discussion of the central role deafness plays in the experience. Checking in for a reservation, ordering pizzas, asking for a split check or to-go box, all these things involve a fun game of pointing and charades. Sign language seems hard enough, especially when you add the communication-hindering elements of tossing pizzas and waiting tables. Everything ran smoothly though, and the staff seemed to really enjoy each others company.
Melody and Russ wanted their restaurant to reflect the incredible talents that the deaf community has to offer: "Russ and I wanted to hire skilled laborers who are deaf, whenever possible, to work at Mozzeria—to renew and reaffirm the sense of community, self-esteem and confidence." Deaf and non-deaf patrons and staff sit and work side-by-side. While word is getting out about Mozzeria in the general population of San Francisco, the deaf population has hugely supported the spot since day one.
Mozzeria's unique relationship with the deaf community threatens to overshadow its pizza. They don't want to be known as the deaf restaurant that happens to make pizza, they want to be known as a great pizza place that is welcoming to deaf and non-deaf pizza aficionados. While a few topping combinations didn't wow me, Mozzeria undeniably makes great Neapolitan pizza. Verily, Mozzeria's pizza speaks for itself.