Sacramento’s Italian ‘nonna’ Biba made her country proud, had loyal following of customers

In Italy, there are few reviewers known to be more selective than the Academy of Italian Cuisine, a delegation of renowned local chefs that monitors Italian restaurants abroad to ensure every “Made in Italy” tag is well deserved.

The delegation visited Sacramento’s beloved Biba on Aug. 6, 2014.

They said it was a proud day for their country and an honor to their culture. Delegation President Paolo Petroni called the restaurant the fiore all’occhiello of Italian cuisine abroad — the flagship of his country’s greatest export.

That evening, restaurant owner Biba Caggiano received the Giovanni Nuvoletti prize for preserving and protecting the authenticity of Italian gastronomy.

Caggiano died Thursday at the age of 82 in her adopted hometown, Sacramento, after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for several years. The Nuvoletti prize was one of many accomplishments under her belt after trailblazing Sacramento’s culinary explosion more than 40 years ago.

“She came here from Bologna, Italy, with her husband, Vincent ... and she started giving classes around the neighborhood, then wrote a cookbook, had a show on TV on The Learning Channel for a number of years,” Jon Black, the general manager of her namesake restaurant, said in an interview with The Bee. “(Soon) she had nine cookbooks, had traveled the world, and was on the “Martha Stewart (Living)“ show and the Food Network.”

More than three decades ago, Caggiano opened Biba, now the go-to place for many locals looking to share milestones while sipping prosecco and relishing homemade Lasagne Verdi alla Bolognese.

Caggiano accepted nothing but perfection, Black said, and her hands-on attitude paid off. The restaurant received five-star reviews from Conde Nast Traveler, Gourmet magazine and Wine Spectator, among others. And Caggiano’s eight best-selling volumes have sold a combined total of 600,000 copies.

All the while, the chef gained a following of loyal customers in Sacramento. Many have become vocal on social media since the announcement of her death, starting mourning chats on Reddit and sharing memories on Facebook and Twitter.

Screen Shot 2019-08-29 at 3.11.30 PM.png

“Biba was a treasure. If you went to Biba in the recent past on a night she was there, you may have been witness to her cognitive decline, but much more than that, you were witness to what a kind and effusive soul she was, evidenced by her gregarious visits to table of old friends and friends she’d just met, and the clear reverence that the entire staff at Biba had for her,” a regular customer from Curtis Park said on Reddit.

“Biba has been our “go-to place” for celebration dinners for 20+ years, and I always enjoyed (saying) hello to her when she made the rounds of the dining room,” another from Natomas wrote. “I wonder what impact this will have on the future of the restaurant ...”

Several online users said Caggiano reminded them of their Italian grandmothers, their nonnas. Others said she was an inspiration.

Over the past two years, as Caggiano’s illness worsened, Black and others said Caggiano continued visiting the restaurant regularly until a month before her death.

Customers sought her our, trying to spark her memories and express their affection, Black said.

“She was having a pretty tough time. ... People would come and talk to her ... and she wouldn’t know who they were, but she would do her best to talk to them,” he said.

Black said coworkers have been struggling to cope with the news, although they knew it was coming.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Caroline Ghisolfi, from Stanford University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee, focusing on breaking news and health care. She grew up in Milan, Italy.