Remembering Biba Caggiano

The owner of the eponymous Midtown restaurant is remembered by local food critics, family and loyal customers who enjoyed her northern Italian dishes.

Biba Caggiano, who died Aug. 29 at age 82, leaves a legacy in the Sacramento restaurant scene and a lot of great recipes.

Biba Caggiano, who died Aug. 29 at age 82, leaves a legacy in the Sacramento restaurant scene and a lot of great recipes.

Photo courtesy of Jessica Nicosia-Nadler

In a decade as restaurant critic at The Sacramento Bee before retiring in 2008, Mike Dunne had Biba at the top of his annual list of best restaurants seven times.

Biba Caggiano continues to keep a proud and appraising eye on the staff and clientele at the eponymous restaurant she opened in Midtown in 1986.

She is in a quiet corner of the restaurant’s lounge, gazing out from a large portrait that Napa Valley vintner Robert Mondavi presented her in 1996 as a recipient of his Culinary Award of Excellence. Biba is in crisp chef whites, leaning on the arm of a chair in the restaurant’s dining room, cradling a cup of cappuccino, looking as if she just stepped out of the kitchen, interrupted while preparing a batch of gnocchi. Does that faint start of a smile indicate serenity or amusement?

But the real lingering mystery behind the portrait is how Santa Barbara artist Rise Delmar-Ochsner got Biba to pause long enough to pose.

Biba, who died Aug. 29 at age 82 after a life devoted passionately to home, family and the culinary arts, was an abiding and dynamic presence at her restaurant, formally Biba Ristorante Italiano, though known to virtually everyone as just Biba, as in the simple brass plaque and the striking red neon sign at the entrance.

Virtually every night, if she wasn’t in the kitchen she was cruising the dining room with cool command, greeting customers, answering questions and dropping a subtle yet firm hint to a server if a setting wasn’t quite as precise as it should be. She moved with the assurance of a Lamborghini, was dressed smart enough for a Milano runway and conveyed an attitude as practical, cheery and busy as a ceramic platter from Deruta.

Italy was her homeland and her inspiration. Her family lived in a 200-year-old apartment building facing Piazza San Domenico in Bologna in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, about midway between Florence and Venice. This is where she lived at the end of World War II, when she was 9.

And Bologna was where she met and married an American medical student, Vincent Caggiano—to her, Vincenzo—who brought her first to New York, then to Sacramento in 1968. The couple celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary in June.

Both in New York and in Sacramento, the prevailing interpretation of Italian cooking in homes and restaurants at that time distressed her, particularly the American penchant for smothering pasta with tomato sauce. Italian cooking as imagined in the United States too often was a clumsy caricature, with traditions ignored, ingredients compromised, flavors unbalanced.

She took matters into her own hands, starting by teaching Italian cooking in the couple’s East Sacramento home kitchen in 1977. When students complained that what she was teaching wasn’t the kind of Italian food they identified with, she advanced rather than retreated.

She parlayed her grounding, intelligence and personality—bubblier than Prosecco—into cooking segments on local television and eventually a series on The Learning Channel, plus authorship of a stream of popular cookbooks, starting with Biba’s Northern Italian Cooking in 1981. At her death, she had published nine cookbooks that sold more than 600,000 copies.

“It’s like candy; once you start you can’t stop,” she once said of writing cookbooks. But there was more to it than that. She appreciated attention. And she yearned to prove herself, including her mastery of English, not her first language, recalls her husband.

Diminutive but demanding, of herself as of anyone, she was a fierce competitor beyond studio and kitchen, including the tennis court until she hung up her racquet on the eve of her 70th birthday. “I always said that when I start to hit the ball like a little old lady, I’d stop, and that time has come,” she said.

From the outset, in cookbooks and at the restaurant, she was keen to display both the traditions and the variety of Italian regional cooking. At Biba, she introduced seasonal menus long before the practice became widely adopted. She was not intimidated by Sacramento’s reputation as a conventional dining town, popularizing such adventurous dishes as sautéed Venetian calf’s liver on a gondola of crispy fried sweet polenta, a “hamburger” of spicy salmon with caramelized red onions and house-made lemon mayonnaise and spaghetti with salt cod, onions, raisins and pine nuts.

She had no patience for the classic Italian-American spaghetti and meatballs. Her last cookbook, Spaghetti Sauces, includes 123 recipes but not one involves meatballs.

Similarly, she would not add to her menu—or even prepare at a guest’s request—a dish she didn’t feel represented the finest traditions of Italian cooking. Once, a guest persisted in asking for chicken fettuccine, a familiar Italian-American dish not on the Biba menu. The customer went so far as to tell Biba herself how to make it, but she refused, politely suggesting that the guest make the dish at home. To Biba, her restaurant represented a strong personal and cultural aesthetic not subject to compromise.

More than once, Biba said she simply wanted to prepare and serve the “good home cooking” of northern Italy, but her execution was more complicated than that. She insisted on quality provisions, and if an ingredient for a popular dish suddenly became unavailable she would remove the item from the menu.

Over the years, she gradually relaxed what might be seen as an initially rigid adherence to traditional standards. She never abandoned her insistence on using only the finest ingredients in her cooking, but she came to acknowledge and even embrace the lightening and refining of modern Italian cooking she found on trips to Rome, Florence, Bologna and elsewhere.

For local food writers, she was a frank, smart and colorful resource, whatever the topic, whether pesto or panzanella, fava beans or tomatoes. If a restaurant critic wrote favorably of Biba, she would dispatch a hand-written note of appreciation, invariably crediting her staff for her restaurant’s acclaim. If the critic wrote something with which she disagreed, she also would be in touch, perhaps suggesting a six-month sabbatical in Italy so he would learn more of Italian cooking.

Her staff was uncommonly devoted. In a business with high turnover, a disproportionate number of her employees stayed for two decades or longer. Scott Smith, who had been Biba’s manager for nearly 31 years, said that while she imposed high standards she also was compassionate, striving to put each employee into a fitting role, then nurturing them.

Vincent Caggiano concurs.

“She treated everyone well, as if they were part of the family. If anyone had a problem, she would see if she could help. She was honest about it, and she meant what she said,” he said.

Surely, Biba could have opened more restaurants, but she balked at that option, saying that the most successful restaurant is one in which the proprietor is almost always on hand. She was, and still is.