After emigrating from Israel to Los Angeles at age 14, Ahmad Ali Musa (“Mike”) worked at his uncle’s grocery store and finished high school before moving to Napa. Years later, in 1995, he’d open a falafel restaurant, Small World, that has become the place to enjoy Middle-Eastern-inspired food in the Napa Valley.
“I come from a long line of restaurant owners,” Ali Musa said. “My father was a famous chef in Israel and owned three restaurants. My mother’s family owned five or six, so no one seemed surprised that I ended up having one, too. But in the Napa Valley? That might have been a bit of a surprise.”
Even today, the options for Middle Eastern fare are rare in wine country, where French, Italian and nouvelle cuisines have historically dominated the culinary scene.
“I had heard about the opening of a Middle Eastern restaurant and was excited to try it out,” said Jack Morgan, who at the time was the publisher of the Napa Valley Register in the 1980s. Morgan had spent time in New York, where he’d enjoyed Middle Eastern dishes. “We didn’t have such food where I lived when I was growing up, but I loved the flavors and freshness of the food, so having this new option in downtown Napa was something that I really looked forward to and still do. We often still enjoy lunch or dinner there with our family and friends.”
“When Mr. Morgan came to the restaurant the first time, it was only our second day open,” Ali Musa said. “I really didn’t know what I was doing and was hiding in the back. When he came in he called, ‘Hey, anyone here?’ I peeked around the corner and told him that I was making falafel and that the recipes came from my family and they were all made kosher and halal. He just nodded and then ate. The next day a reporter came in to write up a story.”
The day after the interview, they closed up shop and he and his wife headed to San Francisco. It had been a long time since they’d taken a break, and the restaurant had brought in a whopping $50 the day before.
“Fifty bucks was really something at that point, so we decided to celebrate,” Ali Musa said. “When we were in San Francisco just walking around, this guy calls out to us, ‘Hey Falafel Man, did you see the front page of the Register today?’”
Later, Ali Musa found a paper. The story had run on the front page with his photo front and center.
“The day after the article ran there was a line down the block,” Ali Musa said. “We ran out of food and I was asking my wife, ‘What do we do now?’ She said we need more supplies. I nodded and ran down to Safeway to stock up. We kept cooking as best we could. Since then, things have been pretty consistent. We have lots of repeat customers, which is something that I really value.”
“This is the best place to get falafel in the Napa Valley,” said Marc Frankenstein, a Napa resident and frequenter of Small World. “I find myself craving the food, and I like that it’s so fresh and reasonably priced.”
Beyond providing good food and a smile, Ali Musa hopes the restaurant provides a safe place for a tired world.
“There is so much anger out there, but we are really all the same when it comes down to it,” Ali Musa said. “I believe in all the world’s religions and traditions because we all come from one power and it’s the same. It’s possible to get along, especially around the table. In my experience everyone, no matter what their tradition, got along where I grew up in Nazareth. And my many local friends from the Jewish community have been wonderfully supportive and helpful over the years, including my first landlord, who wrote into the lease that I had first rights to purchase the building after he died. I am eternally grateful for his kindness and thoughtfulness.”
“The food is one thing, but it’s really Ali Musa’s — and the entire staff’s — personalities that makes people want to return,” Morgan said. “His friendly smile and support of the community have had a positive impact on bringing people closer together.”
Part of these broader efforts include supporting local charities and the efforts of Peace Table, a local organization that, according to Ali Musa, seeks to create peaceful solutions for conflict and a way to foster new relationships that build a stronger community.
“I feel blessed to have been elected to chair Peace Table three times and that I was invited to speak out for women’s rights alongside Rep. Mike Thompson at last year’s women’s right march in Napa,” he said. “We need to take care of each other and the earth. This is our duty — to care for this place and keep it safe for future generations.”
New customers to Small World might find the payment system a bit strange.
“We use what we call the honor system,” Ali Musa explained. “People order their food but then pay after they are done eating, just telling us what they ordered. We trust our customers.”
Most of the time, this altruistic behavior works out well and helps foster a genuine sense of community within the restaurant and beyond. However, there are those who take advantage.
“Just a few days ago, a man took someone else’s food and started walking down the street with it,” Ali Musa said. “When I called after him I was thinking that once I got the food back to the customer I’d offer this guy a free lunch — he must have needed it. But that’s when he punched me square in the face.”
He pointed to his swollen lip and then shrugged, “It takes all kinds I guess, but these small bumps will not change the way we do business.”
The most popular items at Small World include vegetarian chickpea-based gyros of hummus and falafel pita ($7.50), or offerings that include roasted shawarma (beef and lamb), chicken or other options, any of which can be layered into chewy pita bread gyros ($8) that are heaped full of fresh vegetables and homemade pickled or cured condiments. Other options include salads ($9 to $13), burgers ($6 to $8) and fresh-made baklava, a rich, sweet dessert pastry made of layers of crunchy filo dough filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with honey ($1.50).
Specialized coffee drinks such as Turkish coffee or “Affok” (a version of a traditional Israel coffee drink, according to Ali Musa) and beer and wine are available.
“All our food comes with the hope of making people feel welcome, but the baklava is special in that its tradition is about bringing people together,” Ali Musa said. “We named this Small World because that’s the way we see it — Everyone wants the same things. And what we started as a Small World seems to have gotten just a little bit bigger, and that’s a good thing.”