Breakfast Wars in Somerville

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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.”

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.”

Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/restaurants/2016/05/01/somerville-breakfast-wars/