Earlier this year, we published a popular happy-hour guide proposing evening drink and food specials as entry points into Sacramento’s highest-end restaurants.
This project was my personal gateway to Biba Ristorante Italiano. Sampling this midtown Sacramento fine-dining staple’s wonderful happy-hour dishes prompted several subsequent visits and an escalation from crunchy yet tender $8 calamari to an $18.50 dinner serving of spaghetti carbonara that holds just enough black pepper to trick the palate into thinking some of its egg yolk, cheese and smoked pancetta richness doesn’t count.
And to ordering the carbonara again months later – after discovering the new-dining-review-warranting information that Biba turns 30 this year – so as to be able to inform Bee readers how the seasonal corn in it compared with seasonal peas from spring. The corn adds crunchy texture, and you’re welcome.
To put things in perspective, the restaurant opened by Bologna, Italy, native and celebrity chef Biba Caggiano is three times older than Mulvaney’s, which feels like an institution already, and 30 times older than Empress Tavern, Localis, Hawks Public House and Binchoyaki, the hottest restaurants to open in the past year or so.
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Biba’s restaurant contemporaries – Paragary’s, which opened in 1983, and Lemon Grass, from 1989 – also were founded by local legends. But whereas Randy Paragary and Mai Pham created restaurant empires whose diversity, in dining and service levels, inevitably produced diverse opinions about their brands, Caggiano did not.
Biba Ristorante has stood, un-spun-off, in an 1853 building that looks more Swiss than Italian (hey, they both have Alps). Its status as one of the city’s best restaurants never has wavered. Though Biba might not be the most innovative restaurant in town, its food and service, apart from a few missteps, runs from good to great, and its proprietor, now 80, still comes in to check on things most nights.
Caggiano, author of best-selling cookbooks and host of her own TLC show, “Biba’s Italian Kitchen,” in the 1990s (before cable channels handed out cooking shows like participation ribbons at a toddler gymnastics tournament), shows up in the evenings with her husband, retired oncologist Dr. Vincent Caggiano. Though she was under the weather and could not sit down for a scheduled interview, I, like many Biba patrons, already had interacted with her a few times during meals.
She stopped to flirt with my male dining companion during one dinner, and later told me, as I sat at the bar, why she still makes nightly appearances: “It’s my name” on the restaurant, she said. “If things are going well, I can leave early. If not, I will stay.”
Steve Toso has been the restaurant’s chef for eight years, and there were others before him. But the kitchen always has used Caggiano’s recipes, “And yelling at the kitchen that it’s too salty, or too thick, or needs olive oil – that’s always been her, too,” said Scott Smith, the restaurant’s manager for 29 years.
And it always has been Caggiano demanding the best ingredients, Smith said, like imported prosciutto and canned San Marzano tomatoes, along with the local ingredients (Watanabe Farms cherry tomatoes, Dixon lamb) that were integral to the restaurant’s menu long before “farm to fork” was an official city slogan.
It has been easy to overlook Biba in recent years. Caggiano’s refined yet homey approach does not jibe with the post-Bourdain rise of the brash, and most often male, chef intent on more extreme gastronomy, whether that means roasting whole pigs or using dehydrators and blow torches to turn vegetables into sculptures.
All the bandana’d foreheads, tattoo sleeves and testosterone in its foreground have made it easy to forget that the Sacramento culinary scene, still best known to the outside world through Caggiano’s and Pham’s cookbooks, is a matriarchy.
The few times I ate at Biba before 2016 were at the behest of friends from San Francisco who were fans of Caggiano’s cookbooks. And although everything I ate was delicious, I hadn’t returned to Biba in several years.
Because the biggest factor in Biba being overlooked is that it was physically obscured for so long by surrounding Sutter Health construction. My years-long impression of the corner of 28th and Capitol is of torn-up streets, redirected traffic and people in hard hats and orange vests. I didn’t want to be anywhere near that mess.
Nor did many others. Smith said construction that lasted from 2007 to 2015, combined with the recession, decreased Biba’s business by a third. But it’s steadily coming back – as we could see from a nearly full dining room on a recent Tuesday evening.
Biba’s most loyal patrons never stopped coming, Smith said. They weathered the construction and used Biba’s valet service – still a good option, in a neighborhood where parking has become scarcer – to celebrate special occasions in a restaurant whose cushier touches, like carpet and padded banquettes, make it seem all the more special in a current restaurant scene partial to concrete floors and unfinished ceilings.
Hearing every cling, clang and raised voice richochet off exposed brick has become so commonplace that one feels a sense of relief at encountering noise levels reasonable enough, at Biba, that one need not shout to communicate at the table. Biba’s large dining room, with its butter-yellow walls, equals the restaurant’s food in casual elegance.
The main knock on Biba over the past decade or so has been that its interior looks dated. But the decor was refreshed five years ago. The bar’s once-pale walls became a more intimate dark blue. One of those walls holds a giant painting of Caggiano that should help remind people who haven’t visited since the refurbishing what restaurant they are in.
Eye-level mirrors in the dining room still feel solidly ’80s, though I hold some fondness for them, since the first fancy restaurants I admired, as a teen, were California-cuisine places with as many mirrors as Nagel prints.
But nostalgia does not rule at Biba, where there are remarkable culinary discoveries to be made for a relative newcomer like me. Like the restaurant’s signature dish, lasagne verdi alla Bolognese. The lasagna, available only on Thursdays and Fridays, holds pork, veal and pancetta. But its beauty lies in its thin, delicate layers of spinach pasta – 10 or 12 in all – that together feel extraordinary on the tongue.
As one takes in all those layers, which are soft in consistency while still retaining body, one absorbs the idea of the effort that went into making what feels – as much as that painting of Caggiano – like artwork.
The textural adventures continue with Biba’s raviolis, which consist of far more – again very thin and delicate – pasta than filling. But journey and destination satisfy equally. The two raviolis we tried (they rotate), filled with prosciutto and shrimp, respectively, were divine.
Speaking of divine, if one were to choose a particular food item through which to risk meeting one’s maker, a la the “death by” cliché, Biba’s firm yet supple ricotta gnocchi covered in Gorgonzola sauce is the clear choice. Made with slightly sweet Gorgonzola dolce imported from Italy, its fatty simplicity beats fried Twinkies, chocolate lava cake and triple-decker cheeseburgers as a calorie splurge.
Those looking for lighter options … should find a different restaurant. But if you insist, the farro tagliatelle, the pasta in which offers a welcome, slightly nutty flavor, might be the best option, since its blistered-tomato and noodle-liked spiraled-zucchini elements seem healthful enough.
Entrees were less consistent. The $32 halibut was overcooked, and the pieces of lamb shoulder in the entree of a $35 three-course “prezzo fisso” menu was half tender, half tough. The calf’s liver we ordered at lunch, however, was perfectly tender, with Vidalia onions helping lift the liver’s slight sweetness past its sharper qualities.
It’s also smart to rely on the recommendations of Biba’s highly polished front-of-the-house staff, composed of servers and bartenders who count their years of service in double digits – unusual in an industry known for its turnover
When I asked assistant manager/bartender John Black to recommend a glass of red wine to go with the prosciutto ravioli, he recommended the $10 2013 Boeger Barbera. This El Dorado County wine’s rich fruitiness teased out the ravioli’s sweeter elements. I would have ordered anything he recommended from Biba’s extensive list of Italian and California wines, but was delighted Black did not try to up-sell me.
Black and longtime Biba server Jeannine Brady acknowledged service wrinkles before we noticed them. When, on our initial happy-hour visit last spring, an appetizer took too long to arrive, Black apologized and threw in an extra starter. At dinner a few weeks ago, Brady brought out a chocolate gelato to compensate for a mocha gelato that had not quite solidified.
On a few occasions, we had to wait too long for our order to be taken, or for the check. At these moments, the staff member in question was obviously very busy elsewhere. As stellar as it is, Biba’s service staff also occasionally seems stretched thin.
Business at Biba should improve further with the opening of Golden 1 Center and later, the new B Street Theatre just down Capitol Avenue. The B Street project seems especially promising, since its discerning, middle-aged and older, disposable-income-having audience seems to line up with the Biba clientele we saw during our visits.
The truly culturally aware among younger people attending Kings games and concerts at the new arena ought to visit Biba as well. There’s nothing hipper than a 30-year-old restaurant whose food remains top-notch and whose famous owner is there to greet you, whether in person or via that enormous portrait on the wall.
Biba Ristorante Italiano
2801 Capitol Ave., Sacramento. 916-455-2422, www.biba-restaurant.com
Hours: 5:30-9 p.m. Monday. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5:30-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5:30-10 p.m. Friday. 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Saturday.
Beverage options: Full bar. Extensive list of Italian and Californian wines. Bottle beers.
Vegetarian friendly: Options exist but are not plentiful.
Gluten-free options: There’s a gluten-free fusilli pasta
Noise level: Moderate
Ambiance: The decor, like the food, is homey but elegant. The dark bar area and lighter, more open dining room both feel intimate. It’s far easier to hear one’s companion in these carpeted spaces than it is in the new restaurants that favor concrete floors and unfinished ceilings.
Overall ☆☆☆ 1/2
Though there were a few missteps, the food usually runs from good to great. Service is knowledgeable and highly professional, though the staff members can be spread a bit too thin.
Food ☆☆☆ 1/2
You can’t go wrong with the pasta, and Caggiano’s lasagna, composed of 10-12 thin, delicate sheets of pasta, is a must-try for every Sacramentan (and American, Italian and Slovenian, for that matter). The halibut tasted overcooked, and only about half the meat in the lamb-shoulder entree was tender. But the calf’s liver was expertly prepared.
Service ☆☆☆ 1/2
Servers and bartenders are friendly, courteous and highly trustworthy in their recommendations. But there were some long-ish wait times, for checks and for our order to be taken.
You can order hearty, tasty happy-hour appetizers for $6-$8. But you won’t be able to stop there, as I can testify. Happy hour is a gateway to $18.50 spaghetti carbonara and $21 lasagna. But can you put a price on perfection?