La Dolce Biba

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And it perseveres against the backdrop of the Sutter Medical Center expansion that has turned the once-calm corner of 28th Street and Capitol Avenue into a loud, clogged, chaotic construction zone. Work next to Biba started in 2007 and the completion target is a distant 2013. During this time, Biba has stayed open, endured closed streets, seen customers drive past thinking it was closed, and, for a period, moved its valet parking a half-block away.

The good news is that the restaurant doesn’t have to pay rent until the work is done. The harder news was the hit on business. But for most of 2011,  business has been growing, signs of both a recovering economy and renewed attention from the press and from inside the culinary community.

One recent newspaper review raved about the food but asked if the restaurant was still relevant in Sacramento’s growing, evolving culinary scene. The answer from the community has been a resounding yes, while people in the local restaurant industry say that Biba’s food is still a benchmark for measuring their own kitchens.

She gets praise from established owners, including Terri Gilliland, co-owner of Lucca in midtown and Roxy on Fair Oaks Boulevard, two of Sacramento’s more popular spots.

“Her food has always been incredible,” Gilliland says. “People who know the business have a great deal of respect for her. She’s this incredible woman who blazed her own path, who’s big-hearted, and does a wonderful job cooking. I look up to her. Being a woman in this business is tough and she set this standard of such a high bar for all of us, men and women.”

And she gets props from some of the young guns on Sacramento’s eating scene, including Pajo Bruich, 31, the new executive chef at midtown’s Lounge On 20 who’s heard the stories of Biba standing up to customers who demanded food the way they always had it—with extra sauce or a side of pasta with their meat, for example.

“I have a huge amount of respect for Biba,” he says. “At a time when other people were letting customers dictate the cuisine, she said, ‘I’m going to take the customers on a journey.’ She was standing up, doing something unique and staying true to herself. I connect to that personally.”

Or there’s the more fundamental, right-to-the-point praise from Darrell Corti, international food and wine expert—and local grocer and owner of Corti Brothers.

“She makes what I consider the single best dish in Sacramento,” he says. “Her lasagna.”

Oh, yes. That would be her Lasagne Verdi alla Bolognese, 10 layers—sometimes 11 or 12 if chef Tony Sanguinetti has extra pasta—of stunningly soft spinach lasagna filled with a textured, creamy meat sauce. It is luxurious, somehow both rich and light, and it can implant memories, make people believe this was what they ate when they were an Italian child.

For Biba, the restaurant’s relative hotness is a nonissue, beyond staying in business and, as a matter of principle, outlasting the Sutter construction. For her, the restaurant is a home, a chance to
engage people, an outlet for that drive and perfectionism. Most of all, it’s a link through food to family, both here and in Italy.

“I am going to be here for as long as I breathe and live and enjoy it,” Biba says. “They will have to pull me out of here.”

That’s a statement that would have stunned her mother. “You know, when I told her I was going to open a restaurant, she said, ‘Oh my God,’ because she remembered all the years she tried to get me into the kitchen and I was too busy. She said, ‘You weren’t that good.’ I said, ‘I know, I know.’ ”

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Biba was born in 1936 and grew up in a big centuries-old apartment building on Piazza San Domenico in Bologna, one of the culinary centers of Italy. Bologna and the entire north-central region of Emilia-Romagna gave the world Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma, balsamico di Modena, and texturedragus like Biba’s otherworldy Bolognese sauce. (The key, she says, is a touch of cream. Ragu should be red, but not crimson red.)

Throughout her early childhood, Italy was at war. “You could hear the bombs falling down,” Biba says. Her voice gets trelluncharacteristically still when she talks about it. “We didn’t know whether we were alive or what.”

Her father, Leopoldo Bertacchini, worked in a motorcycle factory. Her mother, Antonietta, cooked on a big stove that was also the only real heat in the small apartment. When they were young, Biba, her older brother, Gianni, and her younger sister, Carla, basically lived in the kitchen.

Every day, even when the kids were young adults, the family gathered back at the apartment for dinner. It was mandatory. Be there at 8 p.m. “The food was what kept us together,” Biba says.

That emotional pull, that melding of family and food and mandatory mealtime, runs deep in Biba and carried through her life, no matter where she was.

Carla Elkins, Biba’s oldest daughter, is now 44 and a second-grade teacher at Howe Avenue Elementary School. She says neither she nor younger sister Paola McNamara, a stay-at-home mom of four who lives in the Bay Area, ever considered going out until after family dinner, even when they were visiting from college. “It was a sacred time,” Elkins says.

When she was a young woman in Bologna, Biba’s focus wasn’t food, other than those dinners. She was working in a law office as a stenographer and enjoying being out in the world. At a New Year’s Eve party that was ringing in 1955, she met 25-year-old Vincent Caggiano, an Italian-American from New York and a medical student at the University of Bologna. They talked, asked a few questions, but moved on.

On New Year’s Eve the next year, they met again at another party thrown by the same friend. This night was different.

 “The first time we met, nothing clicked,” Vincent says. “The next time, everything clicked.”

They started dating, and though they both spoke only a little of the other’s language, each says their bilingual skills were what got them through. When you push it, though, Biba concedes that maybe Vincent’s Italian was better than her English.

They married in June 1960, but only after Vincent got the proverbial cold feet and backed out. That didn’t last.

“I realized I was making a mistake,” he says. “It was the best thing I ever did.”

A few weeks later, Vincent left for a fellowship at Mount Sinai Medical Center back in New York. Biba followed three weeks later via ship.

They lived in Queens with Vincent’s parents. Biba got a job at Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, an Italian bank in Manhattan, where she worked on her language skills with the mostly Italian-American customers.

Biba and Vincent adopted Carla when she was six months old. (They adopted Paola when she was three days old after they moved to Sacramento.) The family came West in 1969, when Vincent connected to a private group of Sacramento doctors
doing cancer research. He eventually moved to Sutter Hospital in 1983 and rose to become the medical director at Sutter Cancer Center. Though he recently retired from that post, he still conducts cancer research at the Sutter Institute for Medical Research.

Sacramento in 1969 was something of a shock for both Biba and Vincent, but especially Biba. Vincent had his work. Biba had lived in bustling cities throughout her whole life. Sacramento was a tad slower.

She played tennis, raised the girls, made the daily dinners a sacred appointment, and started really learning to cook, for her family and for dinner parties. She found nothing close to the Italian food she knew, so she had to learn to make it.

 “I always had a palate, but there was so much I didn’t know,” she says. “I used to call my mother and whine, ‘It doesn’t look like yours.’ My mother would say, ‘OK, let’s go over it one more time.’ ”

Her mom’s patience—and slight I-told-you-so tone—along with Biba’s drive, perfectionism and that palate made the perfect recipe for great food—the kind of Italian food many people in Sacramento had never tasted here before.

Friends wanted Biba’s recipes. But when they tried it themselves, the pasta was gooey, the sauces were wrong, so they asked Biba to teach them. In fact, so many started asking that in 1977, she began offering classes in her East Sacramento kitchen.

 “The neighborhood ladies would be crowded in,” Elkins says. “I remember watching people applaud for her, [thinking] ‘Wow, that’s my mom.’ ”

The demand quickly overran the small home kitchen. So Biba offered her services to the owners of William Glen, the homeware store in Town & Country Village that ran cooking classes.

“I wanted to have something that was mine, not just be a mother or wife,” Biba says.

William Glen gave her a try. More than 50 people filled the teaching kitchen for the first class. Biba froze.

“All these women were looking at me,” Biba says. “I was scared to death. I said, ‘OK, I have a thick accent. You probably noticed. I know something about Italian cooking, and I’m scared to death.’ Everybody started laughing and applauding. From there we had a great time.”

That blunt honesty, that vulnerability, and that Italian
accent were powerful tools. In 1978, she pulled the same charming “Can you hear this accent?” move on KCRA and talked her way into a noon cooking segment. Within months, she was hosting a regular spot on the station’s Weeknight show.

Her relationship with KCRA blossomed over the years. There were expanded segments, documentaries, a trip to Italy in 1982 with KCRA star Bob Murphy to film stories for Weeknight.

By then, Biba had written and published her first cookbook, Northern Italian Cooking. She had cold-called a publisher (not knowing that an agent would have been a huge help) and won them over. The book came out in 1981. It was reissued a decade later, after her reputation had soared, as Biba’s Northern Italian Cooking.

But the big hole in her life through the early 1980s was still the hole in Sacramento’s dining scene—there was no Italian food here that she liked.

“There were a number of restaurants at the time that made dishes with Italian names,” Corti says, “but there was no real Italian food. Biba changed that.”

For years, Biba and Vincent talked—joked, really—that she should open her own restaurant. By the mid-’80s, with a decade of teaching under her belt, Biba was ready. One day, she saw workers doing interior work on the Old Tavern building at 28th and Capitol that dated back to the 1870s. It had been a distillery and a pub decades before (not to mention, reportedly a bordello back in the day), but by the mid-1980s, it was mostly housing medical offices. Biba liked the building and the location—it was a 25-minute walk from her house—so she found the building owners, got some financial backing from developer Joe Benvenuti, and hired an experienced staff, while Vincent put together the wine list, and Biba Restaurant opened on Aug. 6, 1986.

It was a public success almost from the first day. Biba was making pasta out at a station in the dining room, showing the town there was such a thing as fresh pasta. (That got old for her pretty fast—besides the balancing act of rolling pasta while chatting up diners, she was pinned there and away from the kitchen. Within months, pasta production moved back into the kitchen.) But the food was not a hit with Biba or Vincent. Biba clashed with the kitchen crew over the food. She wanted less sauce, more simple, clean flavors. She sent her head chef to Italy to see the bona fide stuff. The crew was still too, well, American.