Before Sacramento was recognized as a restaurant town, there was Biba.
You could say, without exaggeration, that the Italian-born Biba Caggiano – proprietor and inspiration for Midtown's elite Italian restaurant named for her – was the chef who put Sacramento on the map as a city of fine places to eat.
Biba raised the bar of quality, hospitality, and culinary excellence through unyielding consistency on the local scene like no other. Before some of Sacramento's finest chefs came into their own, they first worked for Biba, studied under Biba, were influenced by Biba, or were blown away by Biba.
"When I first moved to Sacramento, Biba was like the shining star on the hill," said Patrick Mulvaney, owner/proprietor of Mulvaney's B&L on 19th Street. "It was this big, fancy restaurant that cooks would be scared to go into."
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Mulvaney is now a made man as a chef, saloon owner and ubiquitous raconteur of Sacramento. Though he's no longer scared to go into Biba, the restaurant remains a beacon, even though Biba herself has slowed by tiny increments over the last several years. She has better days than others. Her memory and recognition of people and places fluctuates endearingly. She sometimes has trouble speaking.
She'll be 82 in October and is doted upon by her family, her staff, her customers, and her many, many friends.
All the love and caring and nurturing that Biba has shared with anyone who walked through her door are now coming back to her in daily waves and small gestures of joy, compassion and gratitude.
Biba and her 87-year-old husband Vincent are weeks away from celebrating their 58th wedding anniversary.
This September will mark 32 years since Biba the restaurant opened on the corner of 28th and Capitol to rave reviews and a new sense of what was possible in a capital city. It was growing and moving toward a bigger, brighter future, and evolved in tandem with Biba's evolution as a local institution.
It's an amazing story given that Biba achieved her success her way.
In most of the food world, the dominant chefs are men. Because of Biba, that is not the case in Sacramento. In most of the food world, chefs are like academics. They achieve advanced degrees in chemistry and approach their jobs with scientific rigor. Biba had no formal training as a chef, had no experience running a restaurant before she opened one. She started it all, in her late 40s, after raising her two girls first.
"In the restaurant business, as in the political business, you have to have some background. Otherwise it will be terrible," said Darrell Corti, proprietor of Corti Brothers market and an internationally recognized authority on cuisine. "But she's done something really quite remarkable through her desire to be successful and by doing her homework."
Biba is from the ancient city of Bologna in northern Italy. She was the middle child of a close, boisterous family where love was expressed through food. She brought that love with her to the U.S. after marrying Vincent in June of 1960. He was an American studying medicine in Bologna when he met Biba at a New Year's Eve party. They soon moved to his native New York, but Vincent always loved California and chose to start an oncology practice here because Sacramento was nothing like New York – and he wanted that.
They moved to the capital in 1978. They raised two daughters. Biba was a holy terror as a tennis player and her weekly dinner parties at their Fabulous 40s house grew in popularity. She wanted to open a restaurant, Vincent advised her to give cooking lessons. She did. She wanted to open a restaurant, Vincent advised cook books. She wrote them. She was soon on KCRA, doing segments. She wanted to open a restaurant, she did.
"She never listens to me," Vincent said.
There is a little known story that Biba approached Randy Paragary, the venerable restaurant entrepreneur, and asked if he wanted to partner with her on a restaurant venture.
"I declined," Paragary said, with a slight twinge darkening his expression. "She didn't have any restaurant experience...It's one of the biggest regrets of my life in restaurant decision-making." No one has had more success over the last 40 years of opening varied restaurants of different styles than the 71-year-old Paragary. But how much different would Sacramento's restaurant landscape be today if Paragary had said "yes" to the local queen of cuisine?
We'll never know, but the two have remained close friends and major figures in Sacramento's food scene. Paragary is an innovator, enjoys the design process and new restaurant ideas. He is opening a hotel for the first time.
Biba has always only wanted one restaurant that she could nurture through the years – and she did it. She made it last by providing a different type of Italian food than Sacramentans were used to.
"People would eat her food and say, are you sure this is Italian"? Vincent said. Sacramento only knew about big bowls of spaghetti with lots of cheese and tomato sauce. Biba gave Sacramento her signature green lasagne, made with spinach and an ethereal ragu sauce with a layer of cream that made it look different and taste different than anything Sacramento had dined on before.
"The meat is actually stewed for a very long time and it has to be a sauce which is fragrant," Corti said "It can't be bitter from over-cooking...Lasagne alla bolognesa is something completely different. It has this light brown sauce, with this layer of white sauce and parmesan cheese. It comes out very soft and delicate and delicious."
Corti travels the world tasting food and laughed during a recent interview when told that Biba's green lasagne has barely changed over the years. "Why should it change?" he asked.
"This tradition is disappearing and to be able to maintain that tradition is really quite remarkable," he said. "That's what Biba has done through years. "
"We've stayed true to form," Vincent said.
Mulvaney said he took his late father to Biba every Thursday for the last three years of his life because his dad loved her green lasagne and loved her. "Food speaks to the place the food is from and the person who made the food," he said. "And with Biba you could see that her food was from Sacramento and it was from Italy, too....When you walked into Biba you felt surrounded by hospitality and it made your meal that much better."
Paragary eats at Biba often, too. "The last time I was there, it was super busy," he said. "High energy."
Despite this, in recent months, customers and friends of Biba have grown concerned as she has become less verbal. What will become of Biba, the chef? Or of Biba, the restaurant? With owners in their 80s, some have wondered what is the succession plan for Biba, the Sacramento institution?
But then you go to Biba for lunch or dinner and it's as great as ever. From Monday through Saturday – for lunch and dinner – Biba and Vincent are always there. And when you ask them, what is the plan? What will the future bring? Will Biba still be around? They look at you like you're nuts.
"We're not going anywhere," Vincent said.
So then what might have ultimately been a sad story of deterioration through age and the unrelenting changing of times is actually something else entirely. Biba is the story of enduring. It's a story of faith, of craft, of love and fidelity to the ideas of family and community.
What guarantees do any of us have of being alive next week, much less five, 10 or 20 years from now? So while the Caggianos are humbled by the love pouring their way from customers and friends, their message is: Don't worry. We're open.
"My husband's father, at a dinner in San Francisco, said to my mom, 'What is your exit strategy?'" said Paola McNamara, Biba's and Vincent's 46-year-old youngest daughter.
"She said, 'I'm never going to retire. I'm going to die working at the restaurant.'"
McNamara said the family is talking about a succession plan, but they still don't know what that will look like. They just know that Biba will go on.
"When my mom walks in the restaurant, it's like a light goes on," she said. "It's like she's at home. So we keep going. The fire is still there."