Cheap Eats

Competition is tough, but diners win

By Sacha Pfeiffer
Globe Staff / January 30, 2008

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It's being called the breakfast war.

On one side of the battlefield is Sound Bites, which earned perverse popularity for owner Yasser Mirza's tyrannical insistence that customers scram once they swallow their last bite of food. On the other side is Ball Square Cafe & Breakfast, a newcomer run by the affable Mike Moccia, who took over the Sound Bites space last summer when Mirza moved next door.

To say that these guys detest each other is the understatement of the year. Talk to them both - and I have - and you'll find yourself in the middle of an exhausting volley of insults and accusations. Their rivalry has become a source of comic drama in Ball Square, where they compete with dueling sidewalk signs and similar menus.

Why the hostility? It stems from their disagreement over whether Mirza was kicked out of his old spot by his former landlord (Moccia's father, who owns Victor's Deli on the same block), or whether they simply couldn't agree on a new lease. Relations crumbled from there, and at this point it would take a professional mediator to sort things out.

The good news is food lovers now have two choices for high-quality eats, especially gut-busting breakfasts, in Ball Square. Their prices and kitchen offerings are virtual copycats - an identical dish is "Boston's Best Blue" at one and "Broadway Blues" at the other, both featuring a grilled blueberry muffin, small cheese omelet, bacon, and home fries - and that also has Mirza, whose menu came first, steamin' mad. But Ball Square Cafe is the smaller, less-hectic of the two, and the place where (at least for now) you're not as likely to wait for a table.

Moccia, a chatterbox who has hearty greetings for all his customers, handsomely renovated the 40-seat restaurant; it now has exposed brick, granite tables, and funky metal art. His co-owner is head cook Omar Djebbouri, who used to work at Sound Bites - another source of acrimony.

It's hard to go wrong with Djebbouri's cooking. He makes gorgeous, fluffy omelets ($6.50 to $8.95) with inspired fillings, like smoked salmon and baby spinach, or black-bean salsa, or asparagus and prosciutto. Belgian waffles ($4.50 to $7.50) are so light they're like biting into air. And they're lovely heaped with whipped cream and fresh fruit, from cinnamon apples to caramelized bananas to mixed berries.

Pancakes ($3.95 to $6.95) are grilled to a tawny brown, then stuffed with fillings such as tart cranberries, fresh mango, and seasonal blackberries. My favorite: chocolate chip-coconut, a gooey-chewy combo that melds into a warm mess. There are whole wheat cakes, too, with a dense, gritty texture that delighted my heart-healthy husband but didn't fare well with another companion; "cardboardy," he grumbled.

The fruit bowl ($4.50) has a selection not often found at cheap eats joints - papaya, kiwi, pineapple, cantaloupe, honeydew, raspberries, and more. Cinnamony French toast ($2.50 to $6.95) is made with challah, a nice touch. For a decadent side order, try "Omar's home fries," a blend of mashed potatoes, sour cream, and garlic, all fried on the griddle.

Although most of Moccia's business comes from breakfast, I had a pleasing lunch here, too. Grilled chicken avocado wrap ($7.50) is a standout, with its warm meat and perfectly ripe avocado. A turkey club ($7.95) is grilled in butter, making it rich and crusty. Sweet potato fries need salt, but they're hand-cut into fat wedges and aren't the least bit greasy.

A winter advisory: During cold weather, customers are hit with an icy blast each time the front door opens. So until spring arrives, bundle up if you visit - because that frigid draft is almost as frosty as the chill coming from the neighbor next door.

708 Broadway, Somerville. 617-623-2233. Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Breakfast $2-$9. Lunch $4-$9.
Hours 6:30 a.m.-3 p.m. daily.

Breakfast: Black-bean salsa omelet, Belgian waffle, chocolate chip-coconut pancakes, Omar's home fires. Lunch: Grilled chicken avocado wrap, turkey club, sweet potato fries.