People and places

Writers’ choice

Best Italian import

Biba Caggiano
She’s the reigning queen of Italian cuisine at Biba Restaurant. Her royal status comes partially through lineage, as a native of Emilia-Romagna, where she was steeped in the flavors, ingredients, traditions and aromas of the Italian kitchen. But provenance alone did not place Biba on the throne. She honed her craft through experience and research, developing along the way a nonna’s sense of culinary intuition (Biba writes cookbooks for the rest of us, but she herself probably rarely follows a recipe). Biba has been going through a challenging period in a battle with cancer, which she has handled with characteristic grace and good humor. Long live the queen!

Best route through Sacramento

Capitol Avenue/ Folsom Boulevard
Sure, there are quicker ways through town, but if you want to get at the heart of Sacramento or back out of it, the Capitol Avenue/Folsom Boulevard corridor is the way to go. It’s our version of Sepulveda or Sunset, a surface street that thinks like a highway—it was the highway before 50 came along—connecting a broad swath of the Sacramento metroplex from Capitol Park all the way out to near Folsom Prison.

Best place to have an appointment

In case you’re ever unfortunate enough to have to go to the DMV for anything, let me tell you a little story. It’s a story about an unfortunate girl who waited in line for three hours to renew her registration. Those hours were filled with woe. At the same time, those clever people who know how to schedule an appointment breezed by her. The next time the girl had to go to the DMV, she simply called a phone number, made an appointment for her earliest convenience (OK, so she did have to wait a week) and was in and out in less than an hour. No more woe. I call that a lesson learned. (800) 777-0133.

Best place to catch politicians with their glasses up and guards down

Simon’s Bar and Café
As much as we criticize them, state legislators are human, too, and as such deserve a refuge from the pressures of charming constituents, raising campaign cash, traveling to their districts, keeping their families intact and mastering the arcane folkways of the California State Capitol. For many, that refuge is Simon’s. When the Legislature is in town, you’ll often see a bipartisan assortment of politicos in this modest bar/Chinese restaurant, enjoying a beverage with a colleague who just might be their polar opposite on the ideological spectrum. The double-talk, partisan bickering and competitive posturing so prevalent under the dome recedes within Simon’s walls and helps make our complicated state a bit more governable. 1415 16th St., (916) 442-9437.

Best place to buy booze at the last minute

Last call. What? Did he say last call? Lord, that Christina Aguillara look-alike is finally starting to get lubed enough for you to pop that genie out of the bottle, if you know what I mean. What to do? Fear not, feckless drinking friends. There is a place, most likely a stumble away, that will accommodate your last-minute booze needs with a wink and a grin. That place is the Safeway grocery store, at the corner of Alhambra and J streets. On any given Friday or Saturday night, a few minutes before the bewitching hour of 2 a.m., scores of late-night party animals queue up for that final, quenching, six-pack of Bud, or fifth of Jim Beam. The youthful clerks—about the same age as the average person in line—have been known to keep their eyes off the clock during a 2:05 a.m. purchase. And, best of all, you can slide your pint into your pocket, slip your arm through your date’s and walk a mere block to Carrow’s for a bleary-eyed breakfast. 1025 Alhambra, (916) 456-0852.

Best activist organization

Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)
In the last two years, ACORN has taken the Sacramento area by storm, playing a vocal and high-profile role in just about every important progressive issue out there: renters rights, predatory lending, living wages, regionalism, tax reform and homelessness issues. ACORN is aggressive in its approach, innovative in its solutions, creative in driving home important points and resolute in pushing for change until it happens. From local organizer Brian Kettenring to people who volunteer because of individual issues, ACORN has made itself a force to be reckoned with in Sacramento. (916) 455-1795.

Best ceramic aquarium

The fishy wall mural on 17th and J streets
Want to snorkel without getting your hair wet? Take a walk around the Office Max on J Street. The otherwise non-descript chain store has the amazing fortune to be wrapped in one of Sacramento’s most engaging murals. The broken tile mosaic and ceramic scene begins on J Street with Sacramento landmarks like the Tower Bridge and the ziggurat. Follow the river’s flow, and soon you’ll find yourself in the company of turtles, octopuses, snails, fish, eels and other aqua-friends. Let the current carry you around the corner, where the river ends at a mosaic dock. Otters, cranes, orchards, California poppies and a colony of merpeople await your arrival. 1707 J St.

Best entry in the California Quarter Contest

Gray Davis
The governor submitted this slogan to help in the design of the California Commemorative Coin: “Please give this coin to the reelection of Gray Davis.”

Best reason for Sacramentans to vote for Gray Davis

Because a vote for Gray Davis is not a vote for that money-grubbing guy who wants his job … and because—you liberals are going to have to face it one of these days—Green candidate Peter Camejo doesn’t have a chance in hell. State Capitol Building, (916) 445-2841.

Best reason for Sacramentans to vote for Bill Simon

Because a vote for Bill Simon is not a vote for that money-grubbing guy already in office, and because—you Republicans are probably regretting this right about now—you guys have to save face after voting for him over Richard Riordan in the primary. 1020 19th St., (916) 447-9179.

Best building to denote the Sacramento skyline - The Federal Courthouse building

Best lightning rod

Michael Newdow
Love him or hate him (and apparently many of you hate him), this year Michael Newdow did more than any citizen of the Sacramento area to ignite a great civic debate about our government’s establishment of religion. Apparently he felt he and his nation weren’t under anyone. When federal court judges agreed with Newdow earlier this year that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional because it injects religion into the classroom, the reaction from all over the country was swift, self-righteous and chillingly McCarthyesque. You could argue that Newdow picked the wrong time to challenge knee-jerk, quasi-compulsory patriotism. We think his timing was perfect.

Best teacher

Denise Escobar
An English teacher at Florin High School, Denise Escobar is a winner for her district both inside and outside the classroom. Heralded by leaders in the Elk Grove Unified School District, which serves one-third of Sacramento County, Escobar is said to be selflessly dedicated to her students. The ninth- and 10th-grade teacher recently received the California Lottery’s “Exceptional Educator Award.” In addition to her creativity and exceptional dedication inside the classroom, Escobar coordinates curriculum strategies and lesson plans with others within the district and helped devise a program that helps ninth-graders transition to high school, which is a daunting task.

Best drag queen

Britney Spares
It’s one thing to dress in drag and dance around a gay club in front of queer-friendly folk who you know will adore you. It’s quite another to make yourself up to face the “straight” world, where you might be the first live drag queen some of the audience has ever seen. That kind of performance takes more than oustanding fashion sense and stunning dance moves. It takes chutzpah. Luckily for Sacramento, Britney Spares has it to spare. Frequent musical guest at I Can’t Believe It’s Not Comedy shows, Spares made her hilarious acting debut as “Drag Man” in the troupe’s superhero sketch series last June. She appeared in front of a packed Crest Theatre during the Trash Film Orgy, where she lip-synched to Britney Spears and got a gruesome sex-change operation in a stunning performance. And the best part? Spares has all the charisma and sex appeal of the other Britney, without the Pepsi ads and Justin Timberlake references.

Best environmental group

South County Citizens for Responsible Growth (SCCRG)
Pronounced “scourge,” the South County folks have had their hands full ever since the incorporation of Elk Grove and the election two years ago of the pro-development junta that is the Elk Grove City Council. This year, SCCRG took the lead in and won a lawsuit to halt, at least for now, the Lent Ranch Mall proposal, the biggest, most environmentally destructive development boondoggle the region has seen in years. The Lent Ranch/Elk Grove juggernaut will roll on and may ultimately prevail, but SCCRG deserves recognition this year for putting up one hell of a fight.

Best building to denote the Sacramento skyline

The Federal Courthouse building
For a building in which many occupants are quaking in their boots over their fates, Sacramento’s Federal Courthouse is ironically whimsical and inviting. Unlike most boxy, dogmatic federal structures, this elegant 16-story building is composed of a warm ocher Indiana limestone, a soft gray-green granite, and bottom-to-top glass. At the entrance, a stone sidewalk’s inscribed homilies greet visitors: “A frivolous fear is not a legal excuse,” and “Justice delayed is justice denied.” There is a soothing waterfall, with tiny, quixotic metal sculptures of California icons, such as a bear, an eagle and a pioneer family. Inside, the main courtroom building is preceded by a light-filled rotunda, punctuated by a circle of carved white, marble chairs inscribed with even more wise and succinct sayings. In addition to being beautiful, the building has presence and character, which was an important goal for the building’s principal architects. It also manages to symbolize the ideals of government, while incorporating the emotion of the community, making the structure a point of civic pride. And, of course, there’s the punch the building adds to the Sacramento skyline. There are certain things people think of when they think of a city, and it seems Sacramento has finally caught on to the idea that the buildings of a city’s skyline are icons. 501 I St., (916) 930-4000.

Best local radio personality

Best TV news reporter - Dana Howard

Grant Napear
If you’re a Kings fan, you probably have these words burned into your consciousness: “Peja Stojakovic is on fire!” The man behind the statement, Grant Napear, often sounds like a pissed-off Joe Friday with an outer-boroughs accent; he seems like the kind of nerdy guy who used to take a cassette recorder to big-league games in high school and record his own play-by-play. Now, he calls games for the Kings and holds down the 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. drive-time slot on Sports 1140. KHTK-AM, 1140 on your dial.

Best TV news reporter

Dana Howard
A stellar Channel 10 general-assignment reporter, Howard has been delivering the news to locals for KXTV since 1992. Howard grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from college at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. He’s shown vigilance on behalf of average Sacramentans in his specialty area—consumer investigations. In a world of bland TV newscasters who don’t seem to know what they’re talking about, Howard is smart and refreshing. His revealing report last spring on the local homeless—a story in which he followed around a single woman with two kids as they tried, and failed, to find shelter for the night—was excellent. After the report, Howard—live from the streets of Sacramento—told the Channel 10 anchors that Sacramento County had hoped to spend $1.5 million on a new year-round shelter but that it wasn’t going to happen because of budget cuts.

Best place for people-watching

Sacramento International Airport
You’re early for your flight, or perhaps your flight has been delayed. You can hang out in front of the magazine rack, but why not stroll about with your eyes open, looking for those faces. If the city residents seem to have gone bland, then check out these imports. Lovers kiss each other goodbye, tearing from the corner of their eyes. Strangers sitting on stools meet, and suddenly it’s not so boring. Sacramento International Airport is the perfect place to sit around with a cup of coffee and watch some real-life drama. 6900 Airport Blvd.

Best public square

Cesar E. Chavez Plaza
It’s a simple spot, really, just one downtown city block. It lacks the prestige of Capitol Park and the amenities of popular McKinley Park, but nowhere in the Sacramento area is there a more concentrated sense of community than Cesar E. Chavez Plaza. It’s where the activists gather and give their speeches before marching on City Hall across the street. It’s home to the city’s best noontime farmer’s market, and it’s a spot where downtown denizens of all classes converge to picnic in the sun. On Friday evenings during the summer, music lovers start their weekends on the right foot with cold beer and cool bands. And, on the weekends, the park has a wide variety of gatherings, such as skateboard half-pipe events, concerts and political rallies. If Chavez were alive today, he’d be proud that a spot like this bears his name. 9th and J streets.

Best place to dump a body

The Delta
OK, we know the Delta river region is a great place to fish, enjoy watersports, and chow down on crawfish. But did you know it’s also a great place to dispose of a body? According to local criminologists and law-enforcement officials, all things considered, the Delta is probably the best place around to get rid of that troublesome 150 to 250 pounds of “dead meat.” The keys to dumping a body, as you might guess, are not getting caught transporting the body and not having the body be found, either by animals or humans. So the idea is to dump the body in a remote, unpopulated spot, where nobody is likely to stumble across it or where an animal can’t dig it up. Of course, you have to make sure the body stays under water, employing some variation on the classic cement shoes. And you can’t do it just anywhere in the Delta. The deeper the water, the better. So the deep-water channel of the Sacramento River is probably your best bet. There’s also the advantage of rapid decomposition. Like they say in Louisiana, after a couple of weeks in the water, a body belongs to the turtles and the alligators. But kids, even if you are in the Soprano family, don’t try this at home.

Best poor people’s waterpark

Best political battle - Darrell Steinberg’s AB 680

Rocklin Memorial Park
Why bother paying $25 to have a near-death experience on a water-slide at a huge waterpark, when you can just run through some damned sprinklers for free? That’s what the city of Rocklin offers with its new, suave water playground. Oh sure, a soccer mom or two will give you That Look when you prance around the knee-high, McDonald-Land sprinklers, but what about when those geysers erupt from the eight-foot pole, or the Busby Berkeley-caliber ring fountain? The pre-pubescents shan’t have all the fun. Forget the stigma and treat yourself to a tax-paid soak. If you still fear public shame, consider this plan: Take your shoes off and rapidly walk around the fountains, pretending you are looking for some kid. There is ample tree shade and a few benches that give you a knockout view of police cars and fire trucks emerging to save the day. 3970 Rocklin Rd. (between City Hall and the police department building), Rocklin.

Best place to cool off

The central branch of the Sacramento Public Library
When I was a hormone-riddled teen, I used to hang out at the central branch of the Sacramento Public Library for a very particular reason—to spy on that one, youthful librarian present in every biggish library, who bears a striking resemblance in looks and mien to Elvis Costello. Now that I am lurching toward the age of the white-haired guys you see reading newspapers there in the middle of the afternoon, my priorities are different. During the wilting days of Sacramento’s late summer, I’m looking for a place where I can cool off. Happily, the summer temperature of the central branch hovers around 75 degrees. (Little-known fact: Not long ago, all government buildings were federally required to set their thermostat at 78 degrees. But people complained and the government relented.) And it’s just an added bonus that the building, dating from 1857, is gorgeous and stately, with leather armchairs and good, cool stuff to read inside. 828 I St., (916) 264-2700.

Best local comedian

Del Van Dyke
It’s probably not just the material that has made Del Van Dyke such an institution in Sacramento. After all, other comics have made successful jokes about airline food and women who escort each other to the bathroom. But can they be funny without relying on smut and obscenity? They say it takes a true talent to do without. Van Dyke is that kind of talent—when he needs to be. Flexible and funny as hell, he can headline at a club one night and then turn around and perform for a bunch of suits at a corporate “get-together.” Between such gigs, he teaches novice comedians to perfect their material and spice up their deliveries. If you’ve ever heard novice comedians, you know that such a labor of love deserves more than just a nod from the SN&R; it deserves a public service award.

Best magicians for your next bash

Bosco the Magician or Jonathan Lopez
Invite either Bosco the Magician or Jonathan Lopez to cruise your next party, and your guests will be chattering about what they experienced—or at least, thought they experienced—for quite some time. These comic, cordial lords of illusion tune up both large and small gatherings with the conventional deck-of-cards chicanery and then play the entire room like a baby grand piano. If you’ve seen the in-your-face street magic of David Blaine as exhibited on his TV specials, you have a pretty good idea of what these guys can do up close and personal to family and friends as they unleash the most amazing hocus pocus this side of Harry Potter.

Best place to tango with a tiger

Performing Animal Welfare Society
OK, so there’s no actual tango involved. After all, would you really want to be face to face with 500 pounds of teeth, claws and a craving for all things meaty? (Never mind the breath on that sucker.) In fact, that’s how many of the animals who now reside at the Performing Animal Welfare Society came to be there. Average citizens who thought they needed more exotic lives picked up cute and cuddly bears, tigers, lions and wolf cubs, without realizing what they were getting into. Fortunately for the critters, Pat Derby established the 30-acre sanctuary just outside of Galt to offer these misplaced wild things a permanent loving home with appropriately trained staff where they are free to be, well, animals. Although it’s not usually open to the public, PAWS opens its gates twice a year, for an open house and during Christmas time, so the general public can learn about its very special residents. 11435 Simmerhorn Rd., Galt, (209) 745-2606.

Best political battle

Darrell Steinberg’s AB 680
Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg took a chance. For the second year in a row, he challenged local governments to stop paying lip service to regional cooperation and smart growth, and to actually do something about it. He asked for their support on a law that would reform the sales-tax system that drives sprawl in rich communities and blight in poorer ones. For his trouble, the folks in the upscale provinces in the foothills called Steinberg a bully and a socialist and acted as if he’d ordered jackbooted agents to confiscate people’s SUVs and burn down the malls. The bill died of course. That’s too bad. But it sure was fun to watch the Galleria-Navigator set freak out for a while.

Best thing about Sacramento’s climate

The Delta breeze
On those really hot Sacramento days when you can barely make it from house to car to work, one good draft can wipe the scowl from your face, two good drafts can put a spring in your step, but a full-on breeze can make you put down that meat cleaver and forget about escaping to Tahoe just to feel lower temperatures for a while. The Delta breeze—said by some to be related to the Santa Ana winds in Southern California, the kind that mess with the chemicals in your brain, making you either psycho or mellow—is the cooling agent of this area and definitely soothes the soul. If it weren’t for the breeze, Sacramento would be just another hot, dry, angry town. But, thanks to the breeze and the two rivers that converge here, we have our own system of temperature control. We think those nights without the breeze may also be why we have so many mass murderers here. Winds range from light puffs to moderate and can be felt mostly after 2:30 p.m. Sundays through Saturdays.

Best response to haughty New Englanders

The trees
Smug East Coast residents are fond of saying, “California doesn’t have seasons.” This is a falsehood, as downtown dwellers know. Our trees tell us so. Sacramento’s trees are its best seasonal indicators, imposing a natural cycle on the city’s concrete constancy. Those without allergies marvel in the shimmering currents of pollen floating like fairy droppings through the spring sky. Summer’s leafy green canopy rustles in the Delta breeze and provides grateful shade. Come fall, the leaves embody every hue on the warm side of the color wheel (take that Vermont!) and pile haphazardly on the sidewalks. People walk with a scuff, scuff, shuffle through the deciduous debris and surreptitiously jump in the curbside piles raked for the street cleaner. Winter’s trees are skeletal branches bracing the gray sky, carefully scanned for spring’s first buds by shivering passersby.