Breakfast Wars in Somerville

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

Moccia’s version of what happened is, of course, much different. He says he was walking past Sound Bites when Mirza muttered, “[You] piece of shit, guinea! I’ll spit in your parents’ face.”

When Moccia dared Mirza to spit in his face instead, Moccia says, Mirza was happy to oblige.

Moccia, saliva dripping down his chin, reared back and punched his ex-tenant between the eyes. “It never got to the point of a fight until he spit at me,” Moccia says. “I’m OCD, and I don’t like that shit. I almost don’t like shaking hands because people have their own gross-ass hands. I hit him twice. That’s all I did.”

The police report tends to favor Moccia’s account. The five witnesses at the scene—including one Sound Bites employee and Mirza’s own girlfriend—contradicted Mirza’s recollection of the events, from the severity of the altercation (nobody saw either combatant kicking the other) to Mirza’s allegation that Moccia bellowed, “This is for the American people. Go back to your country!” In the end, each witness corroborated the story Moccia told the Somerville police: that Mirza threatened Moccia’s elderly parents and then spit in his face, inciting two fast jabs to the head. While Mirza did end up at Mass General, he refused medical attention at the scene and was taken to the hospital by his brother, not an ambulance.

In the aftermath, Mirza repeatedly threatened to secure a restraining order against Moccia, but never did. Still, the door was open for subtler antics. With police now keeping closer tabs on the battling businesses, Moccia and Mirza had to get creative. Over the next several years, their rivalry took on a surreal, Spy vs. Spy quality.

Moccia struck first, padlocking the gate separating the two businesses and erecting an obstructive walk-in cooler behind Ball Square Café. Without alley access, Sound Bites had to wheel its trash through the restaurant. Worse, the blocked egress was a clear safety hazard. Suspiciously enough, the fire department arrived mere days later to inspect Sound Bites’ back exit. And with Moccia unwilling to unlock the private gate, Mirza says he was forced to temporarily shutter Sound Bites and implement a new fire-suppression system—an upgrade that cost more than $20,000, on top of lost sales. “Yasser was so mad,” says Moccia, unable to hide his amusement. “He thought he could call the city and force us to unlock the gate so [he] could prance through our property. You know what, Yasser? You burnt that bridge, my friend.”

In retaliation, Mirza made it a habit to monitor Moccia’s vehicle on smoke breaks, knowing his neighbor frequently parked his Jeep illegally in loading zones. According to Moccia, Mirza was behind the increasing number of tickets on his windshield; he also suspects Mirza of writing a string of negative Yelp reviews. Moccia’s most provocative accusation, though, is that Mirza exploited a close relationship with Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone to spark a Board of Health investigation into Ball Square Café. “If you look around the whole city, Joe Curtatone loves foreigners,” Moccia says. “And he figures, let me kiss their ass so they’ll kiss my ass and vote for me.”

“That’s absurd,” Curtatone responds. “I know the family. We’re not close. Without naming names, I find the actions of certain individuals to be childish. People come to an establishment because they love the quality of the food and the service. That’s why I go to Sound Bites. That’s why I go to Kelly’s Diner. This other stuff, I guess it makes it good for entertainment value for all you guys to write, and some of us to watch.”

 

Originally, I’d set out to write about Sound Bites—but I wasn’t interested in unraveling its backstory with Ball Square Café, investigating any mayoral conspiracy theories, or sifting through piles of opaque police reports. In late 2015, I was researching the best breakfast spots in town and had only one question for Mirza: What makes Sound Bites’ famous hash browns so damn tasty? Knowing he’d avoided the media since the 2010 brawl, I was sure I’d come up empty. But to my surprise, Mirza not only invited me over, he told me to come hungry.

When I arrived at Sound Bites, Mirza greeted me enthusiastically. “Are you Irish? You look European,” he boomed in his glottal tenor. He zipped into the kitchen and returned bearing fruit salad, corned-beef hash, and a to-go bag brimming with scones. After unloading his haul, he slid in next to me—in a table built for six—and leaned inches from my face, so close I could smell his leathery eau de toilette. He grilled me about my family heritage, my decision to wear a cardigan in early November, and even my outmoded tape recorder. Yet when I pressed him for details on the hash browns, he dodged the topic.

Instead, Mirza wanted to talk about his impact on gastronomy: Hash-brown fanboys abound throughout the world, he told me, before referring to Rosie O’Donnell as his “best friend” and describing a recent flight to San Francisco on which the pilot made a point of exiting the cockpit just to shake his hand. Even Rachael Ray once stopped by to film a segment for her show Tasty Travels. “I wanted her,” he leered, fluttering his caterpillar eyebrows like Groucho Marx. “But she’s a lesbian. One hundred percent. Believe me.” Mirza also peppered the “evil” Moccias frequently into conversation—from Mike’s blatant recipe theft to the painful 2010 fistfight.

Before I left, he led me around the room, describing the faithful customers displayed in each framed photograph, including regulars who’d died of cancer, run the marathon, or moved to Florida. He occasionally pulled in members of his staff—never introducing these awkward, half-smirking chefs by name, but by the number of years they’d been with him. Because to Mirza, entering Sound Bites isn’t a decision based merely on appetite or salary. It’s a question of loyalty. And in his world customers, employees, and even neighboring shops along Broadway can be compartmentalized into one of two categories: friends or foes. I was about to find out what it felt like to make the enemy list.

After our conversation, I realized that something about Mirza’s story wasn’t adding up. The origin tale that Mirza likes to tell—the self-made man who bootstrapped his way up from the bottom rung of the culinary ladder to become a brunch mogul—raised more questions than answers. Did Mirza really reinvent the famous Sound Bites menu? After all, hungry diners were lining up outside the restaurant long before he ever showed up in Ball Square. Was the hash-brown recipe actually Mirza’s mom’s? Or did someone else invent his “No Place Like Home Fries”?

After meeting with Mirza, I reached out to one very conspicuous Sound Bites defector: Omar Djebbouri, the cook hired in 1992 by the restaurant’s original owners.

For years, Mirza has asserted that his very public angst against Ball Square Café was the result of a thinly veiled culinary forgery. When I asked Djebbouri about the supposed menu heist, though, he dismissed the allegations, saying that when Mirza bought Sound Bites in 1996, he “just bought the key.” Djebbouri claims the restaurant’s clientele, menu, and potential fortune were already well established before Mirza cracked his first egg in Somerville.

I emailed Mirza regarding Djebbouri’s claim that he, not Mirza, was responsible for Sound Bites’ initial success—making Djebbouri’s follow-up effort, Ball Square Café, a lot more justifiable, even if it was next door, with a near carbon-copy menu, and in partnership with Mirza’s former landlord. Mirza’s response came in sputtering bursts of verse:

“I did the whole menus

I worked from 5am all day

I’m sound bites

I’m the winner”

That was only the beginning. Over the course of four days and eight emails, Mirza grew increasingly agitated. He called Moccia a “street thug” and a “thief,” and accused Djebbouri of being nothing more than a dishwasher fortunate enough to climb the ranks under his tenure. He wrote, “I’m Yasser the sound bites guy. I’m the truth.” He then blamed me for opening old wounds and reigniting the rivalry.

As I would soon discover, shortly after my interview with Mirza, the cops had paid a visit to the restaurants to deal with a situation involving a car alarm. On November 17, two days later, Mirza emailed me for the final time.

“I will have to call my lawyer and go to court for restraining order against my next door

Shame on you

I don’t need to live in fear again”

It took more than a week to secure the police report and learn how a grudge match long thought dead had come roaring back to life. After years of cloak-and-dagger pranks and subterfuge, it took little more than a honking car horn for Moccia and Mirza to take their feud into the streets once again. Was Moccia trying to wind Mirza up? “I didn’t do it intentionally,” Moccia claims. “I’m not like that. That’s kid stuff.”

To this day, Mirza is convinced he’s done nothing wrong and that Moccia will get his just deserts. Moccia insists he’s turned the other cheek to benefit his bottom line. For all of their differences, the two are remarkably alike: stubborn to a fault. And neither is about to let the other guy win.

Mirza refuses to consider an alternative location, as does Moccia. In fact, Moccia is looking to expand his breakfast fiefdom later this year. “This is my home,” Moccia says defiantly. “I swear to God, it’s like the Muslims and Israel, it’s never going to end.”