La Dolce Biba

Mosaic Portrait by Jason Mecier

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Martha Stewart helped make her a national treasure and Darrell Corti says she makes the single best dish in Sacramento. With a new cookbook, a new-look restaurant, and a decidedly old school work ethic, this celebrated restaurateur has served up the city’s most authentic Italian food for 25 years. Viva la Biba!

Biba Caggiano is almost in tears. Good tears. Affirmation tears. Tears that come from nowhere when someone says something kind and it weaves through years and defenses and daily routines to touch your soul.

Biba seems so completely, so resolutely not that person who gets weepy.

She’s the tear-inducer. She’s the hugger and the compliment-giver. She’s the massively successful chef and restaurant owner, the acclaimed cookbook author with a new release, the international TV star, the friend to the famous, the giving mom and grandmom, the iron-willed crusader for authentic Italian food, the cancer survivor, the towering presence on the Sacramento culinary scene who stuns other people with her warmth.

But here she is, teary-eyed because someone said something kind.

It’s a warm weekday evening. Her midtown restaurant, Biba, is busy, filled with the kind of sunny energy that comes to restaurants on summer
evenings in Sacramento.

Biba was cruising the airy, high-ceilinged dining room like she does every night—she’s 74 and she works the floor every night, well, except Sundays, so shoot her, but she’s there six days a week, in by 9 a.m.-ish, out when the restaurant finally quiets. (“On some days, when we’re not very busy, I leave early,” she says. What’s early? “8 o’clock.”) Biba is larger than life, a small woman with huge stature in Sacramento’s culture. She’s one of the region’s very few one-name people. No one calls her anything but Biba. On this night, her snappy blouse with thin purple and red stripes added a moving splash of color to the room filled with pastels and remains-of-the-day light.

She roamed table to table, mingling with a mix of authority, intimacy and old-world charm, resting her hands on the backs of chairs, asking about the food, laughing along with compliments,
telling people in her lyrical Italian accent how wonderful it was to see them again.

Then she came across Darlene and Steve Recca. They’re from Colorado Springs and Darlene was so excited she almost popped.

“I’m so happy to be here,” she told Biba. “When we lived in Virginia and my oldest daughter was 5, I watched your show every day on TV.”

Biba Caggiano is celebrating her midtown restaurant’s 25th anniversary in August.

The Reccas have eaten at Biba a few times over the years, once when their daughters were still small. Darlene has a picture of Biba with the girls that everyone in the family treasures. She said she cooks from Biba’s recipes for big family events. She said her daughter is now 21 and cooks Biba’s recipes for her college friends.

“I know every page of your books,” Darlene told Biba. And then she added, “I remember when you had cancer. I remember worrying if you’d be all right.”

“Thank you,” Biba said. “It is so good to see you again.”

She walked back to the restaurant’s bar. Her husband, Dr. Vincent Caggiano, who oversees the Biba wine list, was there tasting a Santa Barbara pinot noir.

And now, she’s almost in tears. Her big brown eyes have gone soft. Darlene Recca reached the inner Biba. “Isn’t that amazing?” Biba says. “When I hear things like that, I think they are talking about someone else. How can that be me?”

What Darlene said wasn’t unusual. Biba has fielded her share of compliments over the years. Her restaurant has been called Sacramento’s best too many times to count. Gourmet, Travel & Leisure, Wine Spectator and others have heaped on the praise. Diners have, too, naming Biba one of Sacramento’s top five restaurants in 2009 and 2010 in the two Zagat surveys done for the region. Both houses of the California Legislature issued resolutions commending her—and there’s not a whole lot the Assembly and Senate agree on besides her food. Vincent says they’ve had customers from the Philippines, Japan, Mexico, South America, Canada, from Papua New Guinea, for chrissakes, who’ve come to the restaurant because they fell for Biba’s Italian Kitchen on TLC and the Discovery Channel.

But sometimes, one person’s complete, innocent joy can reach into another person’s core. It can connect to memories and hopes about life and work and family. For a truly driven person—and make no mistake, Biba is driven—guileless appreciation can hit vulnerable spots, like her deep, constant sense that she should be ever vigilant, that the work is never done.

 Biba has joined Vincent and a friend at the bar for a plate of pasta, a split of gnocchi and ravioli (stuffed pasta, she calls it). The flavors are rich, earthy, multifaceted and delicate. But Biba isn’t happy.

 “There is too much sauce,” she says. It’s a sentence she’s probably said a thousand times. Great pasta, real Italian pasta, should have just enough sauce to cover it, she says. You should taste the pasta. The sauce shouldn’t swamp the dish. There should be no sauce puddle when the pasta is eaten.

Biba heads to the kitchen with her plate and its puddle.

“I’m going to show this to the guys,” she says. “It was busy tonight. The pasta station is a tough job. I can see how this hap-pened. But we shouldn’t serve this. That’s what I’m here for. I’m here to guide them.”

So, touching compliments may be sweet, they may have surprising power, but at this restaurant, there is still work to be done.

*     *     *

There are layers to Biba, maybe even more than to her food. There’s the graciousness, the skill at listening and making people feel welcome, the California stylishness, the business smarts, the deep, involuntary reflex connecting family and food. And
underneath it all, there’s a layer of steel—demanding, determined, detailed-oriented, like so many other great chefs.

Family, friends and colleagues say she’s the toughest person they know, in part because she doesn’t let the toughness show. They say her stroke two years ago is an example. Although she still sometimes forgets a name or reference, she just keeps looking forward.

She’s also fiercely loyal, and her staff is loyal in return. She gives full benefits to employees who work at least 30 hours a week—a rarity in the industry—and they stick around. Her last chef, John Eichhorn, did various cooking jobs there for more than 20 years. The chef before him, Don Brown, was in Biba’s kitchen the first two decades of the place. (Current chef, Steve Toso, is a relative newcomer. He’s been with her four years and took over the head kitchen spot last fall.)

The waitstaff has the same kind of decade-plus tenures. Ask long-timers in the Sacramento restaurant community, and they’ll say someone has to retire or die for a job to come open at Biba Restaurant.

This is an important time for Biba. Her ninth cookbook, Spaghetti Sauces: Authentic Italian Recipes from Biba Caggiano, comes out Aug. 1. Her previous eight books sold a whopping 600,000 copies, and it’s safe to say Biba will sell at least one new one to Darlene Recca.

This book is her simplest. It’s filled with recipes she hopes her six grandchildren will cook when they’re on their own in a few years at college or elsewhere.

 “I just want them to be able to do it without me,” Biba says. “If you want something to eat very quickly, but very delicious, this is the book.”

The cover is bright red with a friendly script and a cartoon plate of spaghetti. The pictures inside would make anyone’s grandkids want to cook. The sauces run from the recognizable, like marinara, pesto and ragu, to intriguing blends like smoked pancetta, hot saffron and pecorino cheese.

Biba says this is her last book, but she’s said that before. Seriously, she says, the restaurant still takes so much attention. You never know when the kitchen might serve too much sauce.

Also in August, Biba Restaurant hits its 25th anniversary. It closed for nine days in July to create a slightly more contemporary interior with blues and yellows on the once all-pale walls, less brass and glass, and redone upholstery. The work was a little about putting a new polish on the restaurant for its 25th, but Biba and her team had also decided that it was simply time to freshen the place up a bit.