They’re all fusion plates, concealed under broad, catchall descriptions such as pan-Latin, market-driven cuisine or the always-popular contemporary American.
There’s no hiding the fusion at Bella Indian Italian Cuisine in Laurel. It’s right there in the name, though I think it’s telling that the two cuisines stand on their own in the restaurant’s signature, without a hyphen to merge them in some clear way. Perhaps that’s because co-owners Mohan Dhakal and Series Peeyush offer two menus: one dedicated to the mosaic of regional dishes, from north to south, found on the subcontinent, and the other that reads like a list of plates found at your typical red-sauce house in Jersey.
The principal fusion occurs in a small section of the Italian menu, where head chef Bijaya Dhakal, Mohan’s brother, helped develop a handful of pizzas, each featuring a familiar Indian recipe spread across the surface of puffy focaccia-style flatbread. The base serves as a kind of naan, sauced and accessorized for easy enjoyment. I’ve had slices before that borrowed from the subcontinent — I’m thinking of the superb chicken paneer at Wiseguy Pizza — but none that struck me as so beautifully interlocked as the palak paneer, butter chicken or chicken vindaloo pizzas at Bella. The Indian and the Italian elements are individual enough to express their origins yet fused so seamlessly that they form an identity all their own.
One evening, as I sat in my car in the vast parking lot of the strip center that Bella calls home, snacking on a slice of palak paneer pizza, I contemplated the complicated politics of fusion cooking. Norman Van Aken and Jean-Georges Vongerichten were among the first chefs to seek inspiration from cultures outside their own, creating fusion dishes that were celebrated in their time, though now they (perhaps) don’t pass the sniff test for those seeking to strip away the layers of colonialism and globalism to find the essence of a cuisine. I think of someone like Enrique Olvera, the celebrated Mexico City chef, whose cooking is pre-Columbian and preternaturally delicious, but modern in every possible way. Conception. Plating. Technique.
Fusion, of course, has jumped the shark so many times that not even an apex predator would bother with a ramen burger or sushi burrito anymore. You can understand why chefs avoid the term: It evokes cliches, fast-food fads, cultural appropriation and more. And yet, foodways are rarely monolithic; outside influences find their way into national cuisines by trade routes and gunpoint. But let’s not mistake the incorporation of, say, New World tomatoes into Italian cooking for the Cronut. One is the (gradual) wholesale adoption of an ingredient; the other is a one-off gimmick, though a really tasty one.
I’m reminded of an essay that Darra Goldstein, the scholar and cookbook author, once penned for Gastronomica, the magazine she founded in 2001. “In food, as in architecture, fusion becomes meaningless unless the cultures underlying it are understood,” Goldstein wrote in “Fusing Culture, Fusing Cuisine.” A “kind of banality can be found in the food world when restaurateurs jump on the latest culinary bandwagon, dishing out food that has been fused in name only, in which the distinct flavors and histories of the original foods have been lost. We need to be careful about the way we meld ingredients, careful to keep differences distinct even as the ingredients are tweaked into new combinations. Only then will the result be genuinely new and exciting.”
The fascinating thing about Bella’s fusion pizzas is that no one involved in their creation is Italian, or Indian. The owners, the head chef and the two principal cooks in the kitchen all hail from Nepal, the mountainous country just north of India. They came to the fusion pies organically, just part of the standard kitchen R & D once Bella opened its doors in 2014 in the former Pasta Nostra space. The owners had planned to overhaul the spot into an Indian restaurant, but instead listened to regulars who used to frequent Pasta Nostra and opted for the dual-identity eatery. They relied on Bijaya Mohan, a chef with an exceptionally broad skill set, a guy versed in Nepalese and continental cooking, to build out the menus.
But a chef as accomplished as Mohan doesn’t just build menus and then shift his creativity into neutral. He continues to tinker. Along with his top lieutenants in the Bella kitchen, Deewas Pun and Bal Baral, the head chef undertook a process of experimentation, feedback and adaptation before the pizzas were good enough to secure a place on the menu in 2017. One of the keys? The kitchen sprinkles spices common to Indian cooking — a little star anise, fenugreek seed, cardamom and more — on the dough balls before they’re rolled out and baked, resulting in a soft and fragrant base for the curries, with a hint of crispiness around the edges. These pizzas bow deeply to the cultures they represent.
There are plenty of other dishes worth seeking out at Bella. I’m partial to the Indian side of the place, I must confess. That menu provides a quick tour guide of the country’s vast, varied gastronomy: lamb biryani, butter chicken, masala dosa, rava dosa, lamb vindaloo, chettinad chicken, samosas and chicken 65, all of it good to great to oh-my-god-that’s spicy. (Yes, you can request a heat level that conforms to your tolerance.) The kitchen even has a chicken momo, a rare nod to the owners’ heritage, the stuffed dumplings electrified with Timur pepper, Nepal’s bright, citrusy cousin to the Sichuan peppercorn.
Peeyush, the co-owner, tells me that some customers have taken to requesting Indian curries atop pasta, but the kitchen merely ladles one element onto the other without the meticulous development that went into those pies. They are the stars of the show at Bella, which, incidentally, reopens its dining room on July 1. They give fusion a good name.
If you go
Bella Indian Italian Cuisine
7423 Van Dusen Rd., Laurel. 301-490-6348; bellaindianitaliancuisine.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Appetizers, soups and salads: $3.99 to $10.99; entrees, dosas, pizzas, subs and more: $6.99 to $16.99.