Carla Meyer

Dining review: At Biba, food and service still great, decor needs updating

For 25 years, Biba Caggiano has been a larger-than-life presence on the Sacramento restaurant scene.

She's a nationally respected author and food celebrity who has published eight books on Italian cooking and sold 600,000 copies, while rubbing elbows with the likes of Martha Stewart. She's a restaurateur who long ago set a standard for commitment and consistency and, I might add, a certain timeless Italian charm.

One of the keys to her success has been the longevity of her best employees.

One of the barriers to even greater success – to reaching out to a younger, hipper audience – has been the longevity of the décor. Brass light fixtures that need to be reshaped into trombones and donated to a marching band, textured white walls that need warmth and color, and mirrors that are a reflection of no reasonable decorating scheme I can think of. The framed art – showcased in a room where I enjoyed such exquisite fresh mozzarella and parmegiano reggiano – is just cheesy.

Caggiano's restaurant on the corner of 28th Street and Capitol Avenue, named simply Biba, has long been considered one of the city's best, if not the best. Anyone who has experienced the simple beauty of the mushroom ravioli or the 10 layers of life-altering complexity and flavor that make up the lasagna Bolognese, may search the world over and never find anything so good and honest.

When I began visiting Biba recently with an eye on taking a fresh look at this old standard, I realized I would focus on two components.

Given Caggiano's unassailable expertise in Italian cuisine, especially the cooking of her homeland in the north, I would look at how the kitchen executes her recipes and whether the consistency is what it should be.

Given the age and reputation of the restaurant, I would assess the overall physical space and ask whether the room, grand and somewhat formal, does justice to the food – the kind of impeccable yet simple dishes that might be served by someone's Italian grandmother, albeit a passionate and talented one.

There is good news and there is bad news.

The restaurant's cooking is as impressive as it has ever been. But the two rooms that make up the restaurant are unimpressive – essentially the same as they were when Ronald Regan was president, Clint Eastwood was mayor of Carmel and Michael Jackson was the king of pop. The mullet and Bill Cosby's loud sweaters were in style back then, too.

What we have here is not only the persistence of an unfortunate design idea but a serious failure to communicate.

Although the food is timeless, the tragedy is it just might bypass an entire generation of food enthusiasts. When I invited two folks to join me for one of my several recent visits, neither had ever eaten at Biba. One is a food blogger; the other heads Sacramento Epicureans, a social and dining group centered on the pursuit of good food.

Turns out, both of them loved the food at Biba, as did I. But Biba was not on their radar. On this issue, is the restaurant the victim or the agent of its own exile?

Despite a feeling of grandeur that suggests a Michelin three-star restaurant at a lofty Parisian hotel, Biba is not necessarily an expensive restaurant. That handmade ravioli I won't soon forget? It was a most reasonable $16.50 at lunch. The clean, cool flavor of fresh mozzarella accompanied by gently pickled artichoke hearts with basil and olive oil was $13. The soups, at $7.50, are some of the best I have tasted, and they always have been.

A perfect stand-alone pasta meal, tagliatelle with lobster in a creamy tomato vodka sauce, is just $18.50 for dinner. And an appetizer fit for any aficionado of fine cooking – sweetbreads with pancetta, peas and fava beans in a subtle butter Limoncello sauce, is a serious bargain at $14.

That famed lasagna verdi alla Bolognese is $19.50, available only Thursday and Friday because its preparation is so time-consuming. These prices are only a buck or two more than Olive Garden and the Old Spaghetti Factory.

In other words, you don't need to own a gray suit or have blue hair to afford date night at Biba. But during my visits, the clothes of the clientele all seemed to come from Julius, not J.Crew.

I asked Caggiano – who is in her 70s – about this by phone. She is the personification of cool. She didn't get defensive. She agreed.

"The younger people say Biba is outdated," she said. "We are going to be closed for a week in July. We're going take out a lot of the brass and a lot of the mirrors, and we are going to redecorate."

Those white walls will be painted in warm hues and, with any luck, the room will feel more casual, more inviting and, thus, more fun. This is not the kind of ristorante that should feel stiff and formal. If you feel exuberant about the simple beauty of pan-fried veal medallions (saltimbocca alla Romana), you shouldn't feel you have to curb your enthusiasm.

The braised rabbit dish served with creamy polenta, so deeply delicious and tender, is something no one should miss, whether or not you own a Hickey Freeman suit.

Caggiano knows her Italian cooking, but she also loves people and she knows what they want. At night, she routinely makes the rounds, greeting customers and chatting with old friends. If you are on the younger side and love food, you would do well to become a familiar face at this restaurant.

There are many ways to dine here, and lunch is a good way to get a sense of the place without feeling intimidated. There is a two-course fixed price – prezzo fisso – for $20. Get the soup and note how all of the ingredients have simmered into flavors that pop on your palate. At dinner, there is a $30 fixed price menu (Monday through Friday only) that includes soup or salad, a main course of excellent beef short ribs with red wine, or a seafood stew of halibut, clams, mussels and prawns. For dessert, it's tiramisu or gelato. Pass up the tiramisu at your peril.

The aforementioned pasta dishes are a good bet, too, if you want to eat luxuriously while living frugally.

You can also make dining here a big deal. The saltimbocca, braised rabbit and thick, meaty halibut are $28 to $30, respectively. And the exceptional mixed grill of lamb chop, leg of lamb and sausage served with sugar snap peas and carrots is $32 – and given the quality of the meat and the subtle flavor spectrum that spans the plate, it's a real bargain for a special food experience.

The wine selections have an obvious focus on Italian bottles without overlooking the best of California at various price points. The experienced and attentive servers are adept at helping with selections, though we were not so thrilled that our server "up-sold" on a bottle of sangiovese, from the $35 bottle we initially selected to a $48 label, then mentioned later that she wasn't really into wine. As the kids would say: Whatever!

So there you have it. I've heard the whispers and maybe you have, too, that Biba has slipped a notch. It's not close to being true, at least when it comes to the food and service, along with the hospitality of Biba Caggiano herself.

But let's hope this great restaurateur with the still-great northern Italian food can reimagine her restaurant so it will feel more welcoming to those who are under 40, and a tad warmer and more casual for those who are not.


2801 Capitol Ave., Sacramento

(916) 455-2422

Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday to Friday; dinner: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.

Full bar? Yes.

Vegetarian friendly? Yes.

Takeout? Yes.

Overall: 3 1/2 stars (very good)

With excellent food, superior service and the ultimate Italian mother at the helm, Biba remains an inspired dining experience. The only significant demerit is the actual design and style of the room, which is badly dated and tends to give the wrong message. Biba is not stuffy. It just feels that way. A new look and slightly altered attitude would attract a better mix of ages in the dining room, and that would make for the lively restaurant it deserves to be.

Food: 4 stars (excellent)

If you want to know what exceptional handcrafted pasta is like, this is the place for you. My favorite, the tagliatelle with lobster, has wonderful flavors held together in a creamy vodka sauce. The mushroom ravioli is delicious and understated. Even a simple appetizer, mozzarella with artichoke hearts, tells the story of the Biba way with food: excellent ingredients done simply. Not so simple is the 10-layer lasagna Bolognese. It's a must-have meal, available only Thursday and Friday. The braised rabbit is also a superior entree. Desserts, too, are first-rate, especially the apple tart with vanilla gelato and a classic, the tiramisu. The kitchen is led by executive chef Steven Toso. Tony Fauguinetti makes the pasta and desserts. With the closing of Fog Mountain Cafe and La Bonne Soupe under new ownership, Biba might have the best soups going.

Service: 4 stars (excellent)

These may be the best all-around servers in the city. They are polished, attentive and knowledgeable – and they know how to read a table. If you've come for a romantic evening, they get it. If you're there for a good time to celebrate great food, they turn up the charm and help make the meal even better.

Ambience: (unrated)

We're going to withhold the rating in this category, as the restaurant is closing for a week in July and getting a long-needed makeover. Let's hope the room warms up and feels more welcoming to diners who want exceptional food without having to slip into a worsted wool suit. With the right energy and mix of people, Biba could turn out to be one of the great restaurant experiences in the city.

Value: 4 stars (excellent)

Biba excels in this category because the menu has something at various price points. The best deals are the pasta dishes under $20 and the $30 three-course fixed-price dinners. If you want to share, the restaurant doesn't charge to split a dish like many places do. The major entrees in the high $20s and low $30s are excellent options, too, though maybe for a special occasion. Wine prices also run the gamut and the mark-ups seem reasonable.

Noteworthy: Biba Caggiano, the great restaurateur and author of eight books, is still a presence at the restaurant most nights. She will also sign her books. Even before she opened the restaurant, she offered cooking classes. She still teaches, though her June classes are booked. Watch the restaurant's website for classes and you can learn classic Italian cooking from a master.