Biba Caggiano, a seminal figure in the Sacramento food scene whose midtown Italian restaurant bearing her first name put the state capital on the culinary map, died Thursday morning at her Fabulous 40s home surrounded by her children, her husband Vincent and other loved ones.
Caggiano was 82 and had lived with Alzheimer’s disease in her final years. It’s a cruel affliction that restricted her speech but not her buoyant personality or her unyielding instinct to be a loving host to the patrons who beat a path to her restaurant door at the corner of 28th and Capitol Avenue. Her family said Caggiano, who died at 4:18 a.m., had also been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Until very recently, Caggiano remained a fixture at Biba, even if she couldn’t verbally communicate with her customers or fully recognize them.
Caggiano’s legacy as a chef, restaurateur, author of Italian cookbooks, TV personality and a force for good in Sacramento is considerable. She created what was arguably the most important restaurant in Sacramento for many years, one that foreshadowed a renaissance of food and wine in Sacramento that is flourishing today.
“The love that Biba and her crew put into food and hospitality have set a standard to which we should all aspire,” said Patrick Mulvaney, co-proprietor of Mulvaney’s B&L on 19th Street with his wife, Bobbin. “Her influence on the cooking of Sacramento is deep and wide. Generations of cooks have looked up to her and she will continue to inspire us.”
Opening in September 1986, Biba the restaurant didn’t only raise the bar of fine dining in Sacramento. Biba set the bar of excellence in cuisine and hospitality in Sacramento.
That would have been a remarkable achievement under any circumstances, but it was particularly noteworthy given that Caggiano was not formally trained as a chef. She had almost no experience in business when she first opened her doors nearly 33 years ago. But perhaps most significant was that a female chef led the way in Sacramento while the restaurant industry at large was tilted heavily toward male chefs who groomed other male chefs.
“She worked hard and diligently to achieve her success, a feat not easily done since she jumped right into the restaurant world in Sacramento and made it her own,” said Darrell Corti, a renowned food and wine expert based at his East Sacramento market, Corti Bros. “I’ll remember her as a customer and a colleague but most of all as a friend.”
What Caggiano created at her restaurant were joyful experiences one divine plate at a time. Though she insisted on absolute fidelity to the culinary traditions of her native Bologna, Italy, Caggiano took great pride in preparing her food with locally grown ingredients.
The wine and food at Biba were always elite, but Caggiano’s servers and the ambiance she created were never elitist. The goal for Caggiano was to make each patron feel at home within the warmth of Biba, even though the food at home was never as good as it was there.
“I had no idea what this place was but once I started working here, it was really special,” said John Black, the general manager at Biba who – after losing a job in packaging – answered an ad for a bartender job at the restaurant 25 years ago and found a career. “The restaurant business is pretty transient but everyone here gets treated so well you become part of a family.”
Much of the staff is made up of veteran servers. Many have worked at Biba for 20 years or more. “There is no place else you are going to go that has a better environment,” Black said.
In this way, Biba the restaurant elevated the dining scene in Sacramento while retaining and celebrating Sacramento’s modest, welcoming soul. When she was still able, Caggiano would give of herself to her patrons. She would seek them out by name. She knew the people, the issues of Sacramento. She read The Bee, loved gossip, kept secrets, forged lifelong bonds.
The lady from Bologna was still learning English when she and her husband moved to Sacramento in 1978. But in the best tradition of immigrants seeking new lives in America while remaking America, Caggiano became a symbol of Sacramento in her own right. As her adopted hometown changed and grew, Biba Caggiano remained a constant source of goodwill and community.
Borrowing the imagery of Sacramento’s railroad history, Caggiano’s arrival on the local restaurant scene was like driving a stake into the ground that inspired others to follow her path, and then to fan out across the region while blazing their own trails of creativity and hospitality.
“Biba had the best food in Sacramento and I say that as a San Franciscan who is exposed to nothing but the best,” said Willie Brown, the former San Francisco mayor who was a constant presence at Biba during and after his many years as speaker of the state Assembly.
“Biba was the place where I was the most comfortable, that had best quality and where I was harassed a hell of a lot less,” said Brown.
Brown became aware of Caggiano in the early 1980s, when she was doing cooking segments on KCRA. He approached her to be his personal chef, which she was for a time. Their friendship was kindled by a shared love of fine food, but as was the case with a virtual orbit of Caggiano’s friends, Brown soon came to love Biba the person.
“We had a genuine friendship that included celebrations of significant family events. ... Biba moved the dining scene like no one else had. Every restaurant in Sacramento serving quality food today owes its existence to her.”
Today, Sacramento’s restaurant scene is flourishing, a movement that took flight after Biba opened its doors.
Five years after the opening of Biba, chef Randall Selland opened the Kitchen, which was just awarded Sacramento’s first Michelin star.
“She brought attention to Sacramento and was at the forefront of everything we are doing now,” Selland said. “To say she will be missed is the least you can say.”
Before he became a titan of the Sacramento restaurant scene, Randy Paragary learned how to cook Italian food under the tutelage of Caggiano in private lessons she gave at her home.
“I met Biba in 1984 and at that time, no restaurants in Sacramento were serving fresh pasta dishes on their menus,” Paragary said.
“Rick Mahan (the proprietor of Waterboy on Capitol Avenue) and I took pasta making classes at Biba’s house. She is a restaurateur that few cities in the country are fortunate to have.”
As a young chef newly arrived in Sacramento, before he became a prince of hospitality in the capital, Mulvaney said he looked upon Caggiano’s kitchen with awe and even fear.
That’s because she was as exacting in the kitchen as she was engaging in the dining room, he said. It’s because she was self-made in every respect and therefore never took anything for granted. Caggiano’s American-born husband, Vincent, shared her vision of living for the joy of today as opposed to chasing accolades as some celebrity chefs do.
For example, after a glowing tribute in The Bee to the enduring success of Biba published last year, Vincent Caggiano, 88, was asked if he had read the piece.
“No,” he said.
Why not? “Because I don’t want to get big-headed.”
When he was told how respected he and his wife were in Sacramento, Vincent Caggiano seemed genuinely surprised. The Caggianos just celebrated 59 years of marriage in June. Vincent was an American studying medicine in Italy when he met Biba. They fell in love and married. He took her to his native New York to live at first, but Vincent loved California. So they moved to Sacramento.
They raised their two daughters in Sacramento and Biba was, at first, the wife of a prominent Sacramento oncologist. Her dinners featuring her Italian recipes became the stuff of legend. She began writing cookbooks. She began doing cooking segments on local television. She gave private lessons in Italian cooking. She told Vincent she wanted to open a restaurant of her own.
He said, no way. But Joe Benvenuti, the late former minority owner of the Kings, offered to back her restaurant dream. The rest is Sacramento history.
To this day, the dining room still fills up. The energy is still there. Caggiano’s signature spinach lasagna is still on the menu every Thursday and Friday with its exquisite ragu sauce, layers of cream and perfectly stewed meat.
“Watching how she cooked, seeing how she inspired loyalty and eating her food always made me feel like I was home and blessed that home is Sacramento,” Mulvaney said.
“In Biba, I saw the best in Sacramento – a stranger who made her new home better by sharing food and herself freely.”
Caggiano is survived by her husband of 59 years, Vincent; her two daughters, Paola McNamara and Carla Elkins; their husbands, Brian and Tim; six grandchildren; and an extended family in Bologna, Italy.
Memorial arrangements are pending.
Paola McNamara said the family wants to keep Biba the restaurant open for as long as Biba customers continue to patronize it. Even as Caggiano’s health failed, Biba managers John Black and Natalie Gonzales ran the restaurant as Biba would have wanted, McNamara said.
“Mom had an exuberance for life,“ said McNamara.
“(It) showed in her work and her love for her friends and family. Her devoted restaurant staff, a loving extension of her family, was especially important to her and she commonly referred to them as her own kids. She was so thankful to be a part of the Sacramento culinary community and to play a part in the celebrations and special occasions of so many of her customers. We will miss her very much.”