photos by Mia Nakano, mianakano.com
Last November, another Asian American woman opened a restaurant in San Francisco. Yes, all too predictable -- except that the restaurant is a Neapolitan-style pizzeria, and the owner is also Deaf. In fact, Melody Stein and her husband are both Deaf, as are many of their employees. Mozzeria has received much press as a Deaf-owned restaurant, but few have cared to note that Melody is also Asian American.
As myself a Deaf Japanese American woman, I was interested to know how she moves in her two worlds, and of course I wanted to know more about her restaurant, how it came about. My sister Mia Nakano videotaped us as we did the following interview in American Sign Language (ASL), sitting around one of the chic, small tables in Melody’s black, red and white modernized-vintage decor. Beside us was the warm heart of the restaurant: a large, black, wood-fired pizza oven.
Let’s start with where you were born, and where you grew up?
I was born in Hong Kong. I was two years old when my parents noticed something was different about me, and brought me to the doctor, who said I was Deaf.
My mother was pregnant at that time with my brother, and when he was born, they found out that he was Deaf too. They weren’t sure what to do… they knew they had to find a good school for us.
After trying schools of the deaf close to Hong Kong in the Philippines and Singapore, my family ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we attended the California School for the Deaf, Berkeley (now Fremont).
I was six and a half years old, and my brother was about four years old. At first, my brother and I lived in the dorm, because of the hour commute to San Francisco. We would go to school during the week, and go home on weekends to visit our family.
Could you tell me how you and your brother communicated with each other and with your family while you were growing up?
We used American Sign Language, both at school and at home. My parents encouraged us to take classes to learn how to write Chinese. I struggled to learn Chinese and eventually my mother agreed to let me stop taking Chinese classes.
What was important to my family is that I was able to communicate with my mother and father, who are both hearing. My father knew English, so we were able to communicate in ASL and in written English.
So now you have a Neapolitan pizza restaurant… Who influenced your food and your cooking?
My family has run restaurants my entire life. I love food -- I’ve always been exposed to different kinds of food, starting from a very young age. My parents made sure that I learned about different cultures, and they would encourage me to try a variety of foods.
My parents were mostly involved with Asian-type restaurants. I got involved with pizza because of my husband, who is Deaf as well. He loves Italian food. He’s from New York -- lots of Italian food and pizza there! We met at Gallaudet University, a Deaf university in Washington, DC.
When we moved to San Francisco, my husband had the idea to start a New York-style pizzeria, but I didn’t really like that idea -- I wanted a sit-down restaurant. Then we came upon the idea of Neapolitan pizza, and I loved it. I love the idea of wood fired pizza, and the very thin crust.
When you first talked about this restaurant, you mentioned that you really wanted people to focus on one thing. Do you want to talk about that?
I began to tell people while I was working on launching the restaurant so they were looking forward to it even before it opened. When a reporter heard about it, she wanted to interview me. She happened to be an interpreter and a food writer, and I was so excited.
At first many people were drawn to Mozzeria because it was a Deaf-owned restaurant. I hope [once they’ve been], the focus will shift instead to our food. I feel like we can compete with other restaurants in San Francisco area based on the quality of our food.
What have been the strongest ethnic influences on your food, and could you tell me about that?
I do a lot of research and experimenting with Italian food for the business, but when I go home, I enjoy eating Asian foods!
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Alisa Nakano is a Deaf Japanese American woman who grew up in Southern California and graduated from California State University, Northridge. She currently resides in Las Vegas, NV, where she teaches Deaf students and ASL students.
UPDATE: By request, please see the video of Alisa and Melanie's interview below.