La Dolce Biba

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Vincent told Biba she needed to take charge. “You can’t serve this,” he told her. “You need to run your kitchen.” Within six months, she did just that. The head chef left and the new head chef, Don Brown, was a better fit with her.

“She showed that Italian cooking could be presented with the same sort of intricacy and flair that we’d seen in French food,” says Mike Dunne, the longtime Sacramento Bee food critic who covered the restaurant scene at the time. “The food was complex, layered with intrigue, and had all sorts of flavors unfolding.”

And it wasn’t long before word spread well beyond the capital city. Gourmet hailed the restaurant in the late 1980s. “The highest compliment I can give Biba is that when we dined there, shortly after returning from Italy, we thought we had never come home,” gushed Caroline Bates, the magazine’s veteran food critic. Those were also the days Biba had to convince some customers that her food was real Italian, and they should try it the way she cooked it. Her fresh pasta, then as now, usually soothed any bruised egos. If it didn’t, Biba still wasn’t budging.

“I had all this heritage on my shoulders,” she says. “If you don’t stick with what you are, then you are nowhere.”

People were coming from all over California. Then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown set up camp for lunch almost daily at Table 41 against the west windows. That was when Brown was a dominant force in California politics. Waves of powerful people came through Biba to visit Brown, to work out deals, or just because he said it was his favorite Sacramento restaurant. He even brought San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana and some teammates for lunch after their 1990 Super Bowl win.

“I didn’t know who they were,” Biba says. “I didn’t follow sports. Willie was always bringing in important people. And beautiful women, lots of beautiful women.”

And plenty of important people were coming in on their own. Biba had become one of Sacramento’s places to stargaze.

Local celebs like actor Timothy Busfield, radio host Tom Sullivan, best-selling author John Lescroart, and artists Wayne Thiebaud and Fred Dalkey were early regulars. The long lineup of NBA players and coaches who have dined at Biba include Magic Johnson, who went into the kitchen to shake hands with the employees, and Charles Barkley, who on one of his visits, bought a bottle of Cristal champagne for a couple at a nearby table who had just gotten engaged.

The Hollywood glitterati coming through have included Kim Basinger, James Earl Jones (who liked his meal so much, he asked for one of Biba’s cookbooks) and Jane Fonda (with her then-husband Tom Hayden who was a state legislator). Joan Collins also came in, but that one was a little awkward.

“I was in the kitchen and somebody said, ‘Joan Collins is here,’ ” Biba says. “I cleaned up and ran into the dining room and I almost banged into her. I was so excited, I called her by a different name. She looked at me [and said], “Collins.
Joan Collins.’ ”

By the mid-’90s, Biba was hot property. TLC called. Biba’s Italian Kitchen was born in 1994 and ran daily except Sundays through 2004. (They usually shot two episodes a day in a studio near Sunrise Boulevard.) She had more books and bigger publishers, including Simon & Schuster, who put her on major book tours. She also got a couple of guest shots with Regis Philbin and made frequent appearances on Martha Stewart’s show. Stewart
became a friend (though it’s been years since they’ve connected). And even there, Biba was her feisty self.

“I remember once, I thought, ‘My God, this woman is going to kill me,’ ” Biba says.

She was making a pasta dish and Stewart, who made it differently, asked Biba why she used her technique.

“I said, ‘Because this is the way to do it,’ ” Biba says. “She looked at me and said, ‘Oh. OK.’ ”

In those years, she was on the road a lot promoting her books or her show. Especially outside of Sacramento (people here still saw her as their local restaurant owner), Biba was a star. Glenn Stewart, now a manager at Lucca, was Biba’s personal assistant for 12 years and traveled with her on book tours and TV appearances. He said she got fan letters from Japan, Argentina and all over Canada. People went gaga for her in Canada.

“In Toronto, people would call out to her in the street,” says Stewart. “And [once] when we were in New York for dinner, so many people came up to her, I felt like I was with [the star of] Hello Dolly.”

*     *     *

In 2001, Biba was working in her frontyard and brushed a leaf away from her breast. She felt something hard. “I don’t like it. I don’t like it,” she thought in a semi-panic. She was married to an oncologist. She knew.

Biba went through six months of chemotherapy and two more months of radiation for breast cancer. She lost hair. She was weak. But she kept working on the book
Biba’s Italy, and she kept going to work as much as she could.

“She never complained a bit,” Vincent says. “The most important thing I told her was that she was going to be OK and that she had to live her life normally. Except for a few days here and there, she went to the restaurant regularly, and she never hid it.”

“I’m so lucky I married the right kind
of doctor,” Biba says. “He knew what to say. He said I could either sit at home and cry, or I could do what I love to do.”

At the restaurant, most of the men tending bar and waiting tables shaved their heads to match Biba. “I still cry when I think about that,” Biba says.

Vincent also pushed the point that she needed to eat right during her treatment, but Biba had a hard time eating a lot of her favorite dishes, foods with spice or acid. A lot of her traditional Italian food tasted
metallic to her.

So she worked on developing new recipes, for her and for other cancer patients, ones with less lemon, less spice and less tomato. She even created a small cookbook for the website Cancer.com.

Biba recovered and in Biba’s Italy thanks Martha Stewart for, “not only allowing me to be on her show when my hair was just beginning to sprout, but [also for encouraging] me to remove my ‘silly hat’ and to be proud of the way I looked.”

And then in April 2009, another serious medical issue arose. This time it was a small stroke. That was another day that being married to a doctor came in handy. Vincent was on the phone talking to Biba on the phone, and he could tell something was wrong. “I could sense she was not the normal Biba,” he says.

He drove home immediately and took her to the hospital. The diagnosis was a localized
cerebral hemorrhage that mostly affected speech. She had trouble getting some words to form. By the time she started speech therapy, she was already recovering. She still forgets a name or two, though Biba says she’s always done that. Just ask Joan Collins.

In the last few years, partly because she’s a step slower, and partly because her restaurant is still so much of her focus, Biba has curtailed her trips to Italy—she was spending nearly a month there each year in the 1990s, partly for her TV show, partly to keep the link to her roots and her food—and she’s also stopped playing tennis, a sport she adores.

“I still love watching a good match on TV, though,” she says.

She is still looking forward in her life, but doesn’t have any big plans—for now, she says—except to keep going back to the restaurant because that is her place. Vincent is there nearly every evening. She’s thrilled with chef Toso. She can’t remember a night when she didn’t have at least a couple of customers she’s known for years.

 “I have been so lucky in my life,” she says. “Honest to God, I know I should let go a little bit, but this place [to me] is like I gave birth to a ch

At the bar with her husband that summer evening, they talk the way longtime partners talk, comfortably, in half-sentences, slightly jokingly. Vincent says that even he uses Biba’s books when he cooks.

“When was the last time you cooked?” she says. “Five years ago?”

“When you were always gone,” he says, referring to when she was traveling.

They talk about how they are both happiest around a table with a meal, wine, family and friends, about how they use patches of Italian in conversations at home, about how Sunday dinners at their house with their kids and grandkids feel as natural as when they were children at their parents’ tables. Biba’s eyes get soft again.

Then Steve Recca walks out of the dining room. He’s got his daughter, Sophie, on the cell phone and wants Biba to say hi.

Biba leaps back into hostess mode—warm, funny, high-energy and brimming with Italian charm.

“Hi, Sophie,” she says into the phone. “This is Biba. I remember you when you were a little kid. You were absolutely adorable. Your parents are having a great time. Now it is your turn to come here.” S