When I heard the news that Biba Caggiano died, it took my breath away. Like many Sacramentans connected in some capacity to the city’s food scene, I knew she had been in declining health for several years, struggling with Alzheimer’s disease.
That news was difficult enough. But knowing she had passed away gave me a jolt of sadness, for I not only respected all she had done to elevate the regional restaurant community and admired the standards she set for quality and consistency at her destination dining spot in Midtown Sacramento, I liked her very much.
How could I not?
She was smart, kind, passionate, charming, demanding, committed.
She was the owner and host of Biba, the guiding force behind the menu, and, in those roles, she was everybody’s favorite Italian mamma.
The first time I went to her restaurant in 1999, not long after moving to Sacramento from the East Coast, I was caught up by how precisely executed everything was. As I waited to be shown to my table, I took in the grand setting and couldn’t help but notice the well-dressed woman, petite and poised, standing at the bar.
No one had to tell me this was her place. I could see it in her eyes, by the way she carried herself. If a top-flight restaurant puts on a show, Biba was the star, the ringleader. She exuded confidence and elegance, all the while watching everything. If she stopped by your table to say hello, it was an event.
The first time I reviewed her restaurant in The Sacramento Bee, a decade or so after my first visit, the only thing I could fault was the decor. It seemed a little dated, a tad too formal, maybe. After all, things had changed since Biba opened her place in 1986. The carpet, the fixtures, the feel of the room, it needed to be more like the woman herself, cool and casual and classic.
Not long after that review, Biba called me and said she was remodeling the place.
“I have been wanting to do it for several years, but I was always too busy,” Biba told me.
“Whatever you do,” I said with a laugh, “please don’t change that lasagna! It is one of the greatest things I have ever eaten.”
I am not alone. Her Lasagne Verdi alla Bolognese — 10 layers of house-made pasta sheets and slow-cooked meat sauce — says everything you’d ever want to know about Biba, the food from Northern Italy and the restaurant that bears her name. It’s what I see and taste and smell in my head whenever I think of that place.
“Don’t worry,” she replied in her Italian accent, “there’s nothing I could do to make it better.”
The same could be said for everything on the menu. Free of gimmicks and trends, Biba was not trying to be edgy or innovative. The kitchen did things the right way — use excellent ingredients and classic technique while paying attention to all the little things from start to finish.
Biba Caggiano was also a great cooking instructor and accomplished cookbook author. Her nine books have sold 600,000 copies. I wrote a story about her the last cookbook and remember chatting with her about her approach to cooking. There are no shortcuts, she told me.
Biba died at 82, but her legacy will live on. Sacramento was very lucky to have her and taste her food. I feel privileged to have known her and will think of her often when I roll out my own pasta at home and watch over a sauce on the stove.
That’s her legacy: There are no shortcuts. Do things the right way. Cook and live life with passion.