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A hard-boiled rivalry

Cafe owners come to blows in Somerville square

Separated by only a wall, Sound Bites Cafe and Ball Square Cafe are popular restaurants on Broadway in Somerville. Separated by only a wall, Sound Bites Cafe and Ball Square Cafe are popular restaurants on Broadway in Somerville. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / April 26, 2010

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SOMERVILLE — Mike Moccia and Yasser Mirza just don’t get along. Make that: They detest each other.

The two own side-by-side breakfast nooks in Somerville’s burgeoning Ball Square, and their rivalry — of food and vitriol — is the stuff of neighborhood lore.

Separated by only a wall, Mirza, of Sound Bites Cafe, and Moccia, of the next-door Ball Square Cafe, have spent the past three years hurling insults and accusations at each other while serving up nearly identical menus of stuffed French toast, gourmet omelettes, and muffins. Restaurant inspectors, police, and the mayor’s office are all long-familiar with the feud. Even the Travel Channel heard of it and sought recently to capitalize on their animosity with a breakfast wars cook-off.

But now, the rivalry has come to blows. Outside their restaurants one recent afternoon, one attacked the other. Moccia said he punched his rival after Mirza spat on him. Mirza said Moccia beat him up for no reason. He has filed an assault complaint and hired a lawyer. Somerville officials, along with Ball Square business leaders, are desperately seeking ways to repair the relationship.

“It’s so sad that this has degenerated to the Hatfields and the McCoys and the Civil War,’’ said Jack Connolly, a longtime Somerville alderman who has frequented both establishments and knows both men.

The feud dates at least to 2007, when there was no Ball Square Cafe and Mirza, a Syrian immigrant, was doing a booming business with Sound Bites. At the time, his restaurant was in the space now occupied by Ball Square Cafe, and Mirza rented from landlords who happened to be Moccia’s parents. Facing a rent increase, Mirza says, he was forced to move. He bought the space next door and started over.

Moccia, meanwhile, had been working at the nearby Victor’s Deli, also owned by his parents. He says he had been looking for a change. And shortly after Mirza moved out, Moccia opened his restaurant in the space. He lured away Mirza’s prized chef, Omar Djebbouri, made him a business partner, and began serving breakfast, putting on the menu a number of Mirza’s offerings.

“I was inspired by Yasser,’’ Moccia said. “He had a great business. I just saw how hot breakfast was, and it seemed like it was the thing to do.’’

Both men, by all accounts, do a land-office business, attracting crowds that line up outside both restaurants, and Mirza says his continuing success has irked Moccia.

“He doesn’t like that I’m successful,’’ said Mirza, “even though he took my cook and stole my menu.’’

Despite their similarities, Sound Bites and Ball Square cafes have distinctly different feels. Ball Square is narrow, with cafe-style seating and an open kitchen and iron art work on the walls. Sound Bites is about twice the size, with a family feel and a bar at one end. Unlike Ball Square Cafe, which serves only breakfast, Sound Bites also serves lunch and dinner.

Those who know them say Moccia and Mirza are cut from the same cloth. Both are ferociously hardworking men who started as dishwashers and worked their way up. Both are stubborn and hot-tempered.

Nearby merchants who live amid the acrimony have kept their distance, carefully avoiding remarks or gossip that might give the appearance of slighting either man.

“It’s complicated,’’ said one store owner, who spoke on the condition her name not be published for fear of getting caught in the middle.

Still, peacemakers have tried quietly to intervene. “There have been a lot of people trying to get them to meet in the middle,’’ said Bill Galatis, owner of Lyndell’s bakery, who knows both men. “I hope they can resolve their difference because the square is big enough for all of us.’’

Not surprisingly, Moccia and Mirza disagree on who instigated the brawl that sent a crowd into the streets prying the two apart. Moccia, 38, of Medford, said he was walking by Mirza’s store one Saturday afternoon earlier this month when his rival, without provocation, threatened to spit at Moccia’s parents.

“He said, I’m [going to] spit on your mother and father,’’ said Moccia, mimicking Mirza’s accent. “I said, ‘Don’t do it. If you do it, [I will] hurt you.’ ’’ He said Mirza then spat on him and lunged at him. Moccia said he fought back.

“I’m a human being,’’ Moccia said, sitting in his cafe in his habitual black shirt. “I don’t deserve to be spat on.’’

Mirza, 47, of Somerville, said Moccia was piping mad that Mirza had pulled out of the Travel Channel’s breakfast wars cook-off program, canceling the show. Mirza said he never said anything about Moccia’s parents and never spat on his rival.

“He just came out of nowhere and beat me up,’’ Mirza said of Moccia. Standing outside his home recently, he showed a blackened right eye, scrapes on his forehead, and lifted his sweater to point to a bruise on his back. “He had no right to punch someone in the face,’’ he said. “You are just not allowed to hit people.’’

Asked whether he and Mirza could ever resolve their differences, Moccia seemed uncertain. “I don’t know,’’ he said. That seemed to be the opinion of others who have tried to patch over the men’s differences.

“We tried more than a couple of times to get a meeting of the minds here,’’ said Connolly, the alderman. “Let’s be gentlemanly here. You don’t have to like each other. Just tolerate each other.’’

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com.

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