Breakfast Wars in Somerville

For years, a feud has been simmering between the neighboring brunch spots Sound Bites and Ball Square Café.

sound bites ball square cafe

Illustration by Peter Kuper

Sound Bites owner Yasser Mirza was getting angry. Typically on Sundays, people lined up outside his wildly successful Somerville brunch spot, hoping to get a taste of his restaurant’s renowned, pillowy hash browns. But on November 15, 2015, a car alarm’s piercing squeal filled the dining room, shattering the afternoon calm. While the siren may have thrown a damper on his customers’ appetites, the noise was more than a mere distraction: It seemed like a message.

Mirza peered through a collage of glowing Zagat and Globe reviews shellacked across the diner’s front windows. Scanning for the source of the racket, his suspicions were soon confirmed as he spied the culprit: a white Jeep Cherokee, headlights blinking, horn blaring.

Mirza knew the vehicle all too well.

It belonged to Mike Moccia, his landlord when Sound Bites was establishing its reputation as the go-to neighborhood joint in Ball Square. Things had turned sour in 2007 when Mirza moved Sound Bites to a bigger space right next door, prompting Moccia to take over the vacated storefront and open Ball Square Café: a competing breakfast spot serving a copycat menu. With little more than a few slabs of sheetrock separating the two cafés, the move sparked a nearly decade-long feud marked by screaming matches and countless threats. Dubbed “The Breakfast Wars” by bemused Somerville rubberneckers, Moccia and Mirza’s public scrapping reached its peak in 2010 when the two men ended up in a fistfight that sent Mirza to the emergency room, attracting the attention of the Globe and national media.

After the public brawl, the rivalry seemed to wane. What few people realized, though, was that Mirza and Moccia had simply taken their warfare underground, battling each other with subtler acts of sabotage. Mirza was convinced that the car alarm was just more of the same. And for the first time in years, the long-simmering feud was about to come to a boil.

Fuming, Mirza stormed outside of his restaurant. Then, practically on cue, Moccia strolled out from under Ball Square Café’s black awning and casually clicked off his car alarm.

Moccia says Mirza couldn’t hold back. “Oh, so now you’re going to start with the alarm,” Mirza shouted. Moccia laughed and backed away. It was all an accident, he claimed. You know how it is: keys in your pocket, thigh-high tables. When you’re scrubbing down tables in tight quarters, it’s easy to bump against a ledge.

Mirza, it seemed, wasn’t buying it. He started hurling insults; Moccia did the same. Sound Bites’ irascible owner thrust his hips into the air, Moccia says, yelling, “I fuck you, I fuck you!” By the time Mirza’s brother rushed outside to break things up, Moccia was dialing 911 and pointing to a security camera that had captured every move.

 

Ball Square was a quieter place back when Sound Bites opened in 1992, long before the neighborhood earned its reputation as the city’s hottest brunch spot. In fact, for a good part of the ’90s, Somervillians mostly remember Ball Square as a ghost town—its streets lined with empty storefronts after a devastating 1993 fire ripped down Broadway and incinerated eight businesses. Luckily, the cramped, 40-seat café survived unsinged, and while the rest of the block slowly rebuilt, throngs of hungry (and hungover) Tufts students flocked to Sound Bites for its breakfast sandwiches and hash browns.

In 1996, Sound Bites came under new ownership. Mirza, a mechanical engineer in Syria, had moved to Boston and worked as a North End kitchen grunt before saving enough money to buy the restaurant. The way Mirza tells it, Sound Bites’ evolving early-morning menu—fostered under his guidance, and cooked by chef Omar Djebbouri—led to Ball Square’s splashy new nickname: “Breakfast Boulevard.” And what the ravenous crowds lusted after—even more than the fluffy challah French toast or corned-beef Benedict—were Sound Bites’ signature “Far From Home Fries”: griddled wedges of garlicky mashed potatoes. Mirza claims he learned the recipe from his Syrian mother, who allowed him to help in the kitchen only because of his fastidious mise en place. Though he’s loath to divulge the well-guarded secret recipe (Yelp threads are devoted to reverse-engineering it), Mirza admits to certain key ingredients, including margarine, roasted garlic, a little sour cream, and mashed Russets, of which he goes through 500 pounds a week.

Over the years, Sound Bites has drawn a loyal following of fans, such as Celtics center Kelly Olynyk, who routinely pops in to get his fix. But Mirza has also made his share of enemies—including his landlords, Mike Moccia and Moccia’s parents, who’ve owned the neighboring Victor’s Deli since the early 1980s.

Almost from the start, Moccia recalls, he butted heads with Mirza, appalled by his tenant’s tyrannical treatment of customers: hurrying them out the door before they’d finished their meals and berating poor tippers. As time went on, Mirza itched to get out of the tiny space at 708 Broadway, which was far too small to accommodate the growing hordes of Sound Bites fans. Today, Mirza blames his split with the Moccias on a rent hike. But even before that, Mirza was starting to think bigger—not just in terms of more seating, but longer hours, additional courses, and, most important, increased profits. Why stop at breakfast? Sound Bites could rake in a lot more cash, Mirza reasoned, by adding dinner service and even a bar to fill Ball Square’s nightlife void. So in 2007, he purchased a former Mexican restaurant next door at 704 Broadway, and began laying the groundwork for a new and improved Sound Bites.

Moccia immediately saw an opportunity. Not only was his property now vacant, but Sound Bites’ original chef, Omar Djebbouri, was out of a job. A devout Muslim, Djebbouri could not work in a restaurant that served alcohol, and Mirza’s new plan left Djebbouri no choice but to quit. Moccia reached out to Djebbouri and dangled the possibility of a 50-50 partnership: Moccia would run the front of the house and Djebbouri could do what he did best—cook breakfast. For Mirza, of course, this was nothing short of a betrayal.

According to Moccia, Somerville policeman Steve Carrabino saw a powder keg in the making and offered to moderate a sit-down between the two men, hoping they could work through their differences. It was, by all accounts, a failure. Weeks later, before Mirza completed renovations on the new Sound Bites, Moccia debuted Ball Square Café in the neighborhood, further twisting the knife with a banner out front that screamed: “Same Cook. New Look.”

The Breakfast Wars had officially begun.

 

If Ball Square had been underserved in the past, residents were now flush with dining options as Mirza and Moccia dueled for customers. In addition to their stifling proximity—you can “barely slide a hair follicle” between the two restaurants, as Moccia puts it—Sound Bites and Ball Square Café served nearly identical menus, right down to the names of the dishes: Mirza’s “Boston’s Best Blue” platter, which featured a griddled blueberry muffin served with a cheddar-cheese omelet, now competed with Moccia’s equivalent “Broadway Blues” plate. Ball Square Café even cloned Sound Bites’ famed “No Place Like Home Fries” and dubbed them “Omar’s Home Fries”—crispy fried slabs of potato that perfectly mimicked the originals.

With tensions high, meltdowns between Mirza and his culinary doppelgänger were inevitable—and frequent. Patrol cars became a common sight along Broadway as the two men regularly launched into sidewalk screaming matches. Rhett Richard, owner of the nearby True Grounds coffee shop, says the curbside fighting became something of a sideshow in Ball Square. In 2010, even the Travel Channel took notice, asking to film Mirza and Moccia for an episode of the short-lived series Food Wars, which explored the country’s greatest restaurant rivalries.

Moccia was hoping for the free press, but Mirza declined. “It was going to be over three days, and [Ball Square Café] would have to bring their food over here,” Mirza says. “[The Travel Channel] came to me twice and said, ‘You’re going to make $15,000’…. I said, ‘You couldn’t give me a million dollars.’ It’s not about money; it’s about dignity.”

Without Mirza, there would be no show. Moccia was furious. Then, on Saturday, April 10, 2010, their squabbling took an ugly turn.

As Mirza tells it, he was standing outside when Moccia began soliciting Sound Bites’ customers with xenophobic putdowns. “He came to my line, my customers, and said, ‘Don’t go over there, his people did 9/11,’” Mirza contends. He claims he shrugged off Moccia’s remark, but that his neighbor returned several hours later. “You’re going to do the show or you’re a dead man!” Mirza recalls Moccia shouting.

When Mirza didn’t budge, he claims, Moccia snapped and dragged him into a dark alley, where he was repeatedly kicked and punched. “I went to the hospital for three days,” Mirza laments. “I thought I was dead. In the ambulance I told them I was going to die because I couldn’t see anybody. My two eyes were down, my jaw broken—he beat the shit out of me. You could see the outline of his sneaker on my back from where he was kicking me.”