Old-school excellence


Good for: classic Italian home cooking
Notable dishes: the entire pasta menu


2801 Capitol Ave.
Sacramento, CA 95816

(916) 455-2422

There are way too many restaurant-scene posers in this city. You know who they are. The uber-chic foodies who are so over the word “foodie” that they ironically claim it as a badge of honor. They’re the types who make a reservation at a restaurant during opening week for bragging rights or a Yelp review, ignoring the fact that most places need at least three months to even begin getting their feet wet.

They’re also the people who have likely ignored the culinary cornerstones of Sacramento. They’ve never sunk their teeth into a thick wedge of Zelda’s deep dish pizza or grabbed scoop at Vic’s Ice Cream. And they certainly haven’t experienced the glory of Biba’s.

In summary: They know nothing.

Biba’s opened in 1986 under the eponymous leadership of Biba Caggiano. Famous not only for her many cookbooks and her television cooking show, Biba’s Italian Kitchen, the restaurant became a cornerstone of Italian cuisine for the nation. It received glowing press from publications such as Gourmet, Wine Spectator and Travel + Leisure. In short, Caggiano established what Italian cuisine should and should not be long before the Food Network ever did.

Now that construction at the nearby Sutter Medical Center has finished (and before construction on both a new hotel and the new B Street Theatre venue begins) it’s the perfect time to rediscover this pinnacle of fine dining or eat there for the first time.

Biba’s is a white tablecloth affair, so dig out your good tie or black dress. However, don’t think your meal will be stuffy; service isn’t only knowledgeable and engaging, but jovial as well.

The best salads are those that are effortlessly balance and the insalata di finocchio, mandarini e rucola is an exquisite, seasonal example ($10.50). The reserved flavor of thinly sliced fennel paired with perky slivers of bright tangerine is lovely in itself, but the addition of sliced almonds, ricotta salata and briny green olives make it dazzling.

A buffalo mozzarella salad ($14.50) takes a cue from winter, substituting fresh tomatoes with slow-roasted San Marzano tomatoes and a flood of some truly excellent olive oil. The result is musky and deeply earthy, but with still very present acidity.

If you’re looking for luxury, the sautéed veal sweetbread is perfectly executed, soft and delicate in flavor. Yet, smoked pancetta and wild mushrooms bolster it into an umami bomb that echoes long after the finish ($16).

The freshly made pasta, however, is the true draw here. House-made ricotta gnocchi is lighter than air, and on the night we tried it, it was served with fresh shrimp in a rich tomato sauce ($18.50). Still, it was the cavatelli that was by and far the resounding hit. Served with ocean-y scallops, garlic, a dusting of crunchy breadcrumbs and a hefty slathering of Calabrian chili oil, I’d sell my husband for another bite ($19.50).

A slow-roasted beef short rib melted apart upon contact with a fork and easily slurped up the horseradish gremolata and polenta it was served with ($29.50).

If there was a miss it was the veal medallions ($31), which were terribly underseasoned and wallowing in a drab mustard cream sauce that arrived lukewarm. However, the sautéed chard and pillowy mashed potatoes certainly kept the table’s attention.

Somehow, we valiantly found room to share ricotta cannoli dressed in chocolate and punctuated with bits of candied orange ($10). It should not be missed.

Nor, frankly, should anything else on the menu.