Sweet Bella

Word-of-mouth turns guests into long-time customers

It has long been debated which came first, the chicken or the egg. For Woodlands resident Steve Engel, it is a question of whether food is in his blood or in his taste buds. Originally from Cincinnati, Engel grew up surrounded by pizza, working in his father's franchise-based shop from the time he was 10 until he went to college.

Some people might say they never want to see another pizza again. Not Engel. He loves the stuff.

"I grew up in pizza and decided I wanted to get into the business, even if it was just to have a good pizza again," Engel said. "I wanted something different than franchise pizza, which I'm not even sure is actually pizza."

That is one reason why Engel opened Sweet Bella, 202 Sawdust Road, in 2006.

The space Sweet Bella now occupies was previously a Cajun food restaurant, but when Engel bought it, he gutted it and made it his own.

Now, the 90-seat eatery is a cozy place where olive green, light yellow and dusky red walls complement the purple, red and black table covers.

The menu was developed with the help of one of Engel's former chefs, who was a graduate of Culinary Institute of America.

"If I didn't like it, it wouldn't be on my menu," Engel said. "If it doesn't sell, we get rid of it."

The only significant change over the last few years, Engel said, has been to keep up with people's dietary desires by offering whole wheat or gluten free options.

Lunch and dinner specials are posted on the board in the entrance. On this particular day, it's butternut squash ravioli with roasted red pepper sauce.

Even though there are pastas, salads, sandwiches and appetizers on the menu, it is in fact the pizza that is in most demand. It is dinstinctive, Engel said, because every pie is thin crust and square-shaped. The sauces, and some of the toppings, are made on-site, from scratch, with the freshest ingredients.

"I told Steve he should bottle his salad dressings and his pasta sauces," said hostess and server Donna Bouton, who has worked for Engel for four years. "But he usually says no."

Engel said he has not ventured down that path because jarring up the goods and getting involved in some form of mass production is more difficult than one might think.

Engel knows of what he speaks. After college, he spent several years in the corporate world working in food distribution. He flirted with the idea of becoming a chef, but ultimately decided he would rather be the guy at the front of the house.

"If you've never been in the business, don't get in the business," Engel said. "Seriously, you have to know what you're getting into, understand the demands of it."

Engel said he has enjoyed watching the business grow, mostly through word of mouth. He said franchise-fatigued new customers often become repeat customers the minute they get a taste of his "mom and pop" shop.

"We are blessed to have had wonderful clientele now for a long time," said Engel, adding that he has not really advertised in years and did not even replace a sign out front that blew down during Hurricane Ike in 2008.

"You can't be in business for six years without regulars," he said.

Engel is open to franchising Sweet Bella if the right buyers come along. For now, though, Engel, who spends his weekends on a farm he recently purchased in Centerville, is enjoying the fruits of his labor.

"My goal at some point in time is to retire," said Engel, who turns 61 in July. "But I don't know I kind of like it here."

Favorites

Italian Greek Salad – tossed romaine with artichoke hearts, black and green olives, tomatoes, capers and feta cheese, $7.99

Italian Muffalata Sandwich – a combination of Italian meats, cheese, chopped olives, garlic and a touch of olive oil on freshly-baked bread, $7.99

Margherita Specialty Pizza – sliced tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and fresh basil, $9 for a small

Shrimp Scampi Gourmet Pizza – sauted shrimp, caramelized onions, three cheeses, fresh herbs and a lemon-butter garlic sauce, $9.75 for a small

Sweet Bella, 202 Sawdust Road, Ste. 110, The Woodlands, 832-585-0066, www.sweetbellaitalian.com

  • Lunch Mon.–Fri. 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.
  • Dinner Tues.–Thur. 4–8 p.m.
  • Dinner Fri. 4–9 p.m.
  • Dinner Sat. 4–9 p.m.