When Series Peeyush began to retool the former Pasta Nostra to reopen it with an Indian menu, he began hearing fond memories from former customers of the eatery on Van Dusen Road. They reminisced, he said, about how much they missed the brick-oven pizza and the freshly baked lasagna at Pasta Nostra.
Peeyush decided to make the leap and adjust the menu to include Italian standards: spaghetti and meatballs, bruschetta, chicken parmigiana and, of course, pizza and lasagna. He named his new restaurant Bella, the Italian word for beautiful. His goal was to reach out to new and old to win loyalty to his fledgling establishment.
Seven months after opening, Peeyush said patrons are comfortable with southern Mediterranean favorites as well as Indian dishes like lamb vindaloo, aloo gobi and mattar paneer. He said he uses the same pizza oven as Pasta Nostra, "and we have the same pizza guy, too. That's a good thing."
Peeyush, 31, who lives in Columbia, owns Bella with Atlanta-based Hari Poutel, whose brother-in-law, Mohan Dhakal, is the manager of the eatery. All three men emigrated to the United States from their native Nepal in south Asia.
Peeyush said he remains focused on two recent earthquakes in Nepal, home of Mount Everest, the world's tallest peak. On Tuesday, his beloved homeland tucked between China and India was rocked by a second earthquake in less than three weeks. The latest registered a magnitude 7.3, with its epicenter between Katmandu and Mount Everest. The first quake on April 25 was 7.8 magnitude and killed more than 8,150 people and injured more than 17,860 in the country of 30 million people.
"I am from the capital city of Katmandu," he said. "It's known for having a lot of tourists."
The first powerful earthquake, he said, left temples and monuments as old as 250 years in heaps of rubble. "Everything is on the ground," he said.
Peeyush said his father, who lives in the U.S., arrived in Katmandu for a visit three days before the ground shook during the April earthquake. "He said it felt like he was literally in a swing, "moving his hand back and forth to illustrate his point. He said his brother, a doctor, still lives in Katmandu, but was not hurt.
Dhakal, who hails from the western Nepal city of Pokhara, said 45 schools were damaged there in April.
'A good mix'
Peeyush, who holds a bachelor's degree in finance from the University of Baltimore, has clocked years overseeing restaurants in Columbia. He is banking Bella's location, on the edge of single-family neighborhoods like the Villages at Wellington and across the street from Laurel Regional Hospital, to keep the business strong.
"People come in to order an Indian appetizer and an Italian entree," Peeyush said, sitting in the dining room of soft earth tones and burnt-orange colored booths. "Kids have pizza and parents have Indian," he said. "It's a good mix. They don't have to go to two different places."
Dhakal, 43, who also lives in Columbia, said that although carry out and free delivery are available, he would prefer it if diners would come by and savor their repass. "They enjoy it more," he said.
Peeyush said what separates American and Indian flavors has more to do with the use of spices than anything else.
"American food is kind of mild. With Indian food, we have 40 to 50 herbs," he said.
He emphasized that Indian food is similar to Nepalese food. The difference: "They might make it fried, we make it with gravy. Same spices."
Not content with being an observer from 12,000 miles away, Peeyush has assisted in sketching out a disaster relief plan for some of those affected in Nepal.
"Maybe Mohan and I can raise enough money to help 10 families, help rebuild their houses," he said. "We can't raise enough money to rebuild a village."
Peeyush said he's tapping donations from the 200 to 300 people he knows in the tight-knit Nepalese community, including many friends from his Hindu temple in Rockville. Peeyush said one of his dreams is to open a soup kitchen here to help feed the poor.
Peeyush, who said he does all the cooking at home for his Nepal-born wife of four years, said feeding people reaches way beyond satisfying appetites.
"When you serve food and people are happy with what you make, it's almost like a religious experience," he said.