Biba Caggiano, one of the most iconic names in Sacramento’s restaurant scene, died Thursday morning at 82 years old.
Known for the warmth of her hospitality and the quality of her food, Caggiano started the restaurant that bore her name, Biba Ristorante, in 1986 in Midtown.
She was born and raised in Bologna, Italy, and had no formal training as a chef, nor managerial experience, according to her obituary in The Sacramento Bee.
“She was self-taught, like me,” recalled Mai Pham, chef and owner of of Lemon Grass, which she opened more than 25 years ago. “She was always my idol. When I first started the restaurant. I looked to her. I was inspired by her story. She had a passion.”
Caggiano moved to Sacramento in 1969 with her husband and started her restaurant after several years of teaching cooking classes at the Learning Exchange adult education school. She wrote nine cookbooks, which sold 600,000 copies, according to the restaurant’s website. She also hosted Biba’s Italian Kitchen on The Learning Channel.
In a 2006 interview with CapRadio, Caggiano described her philosophy for cooking:
“Choose the ingredients carefully, test them, try them and understand the taste. Once you know what it tastes like, you will never compromise,” she said.
Her reputation for attentiveness to patrons was widely known.
Noted Sacramento chef Patrick Mulvaney says Caggiano’s family was attentive to her as she struggled with dementia and was no longer able to contribute to restaurant operations.
“To watch the long good-bye, in some ways, I think maybe it’s a relief,” Mulvaney said. “I think for [my wife] Bobbin and I, the most touching piece over the past few years is to see how her [Caggiano’s] husband, Vincent, and the staff at Biba created a safe cradle around her while she was in the restaurant.”
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg remembered Caggiano as a visionary who led the way for Sacramento’s reputation as a food destination.
“Before there was ‘farm-to-fork,’ before there was this incredible food scene in our city, there was Biba, and every great movement starts with someone who's willing to take a risk, willing to take a chance and who believes,” Steinberg said. “This city, this community is indebted to Biba for her generosity and for what she started.”
Customer Bill Levyn of Moraga says he would drive to Sacramento just to have lunch at Biba’s. “She came to the table every time and said ‘hi’ to me and told us what was best on the menu that day,” he said. “She just made us feel like it was a little coffee shop but instead it was an elegant restaurant.”
In a business known for frequent closures, Caggiano’s Biba restaurant has been serving diners for more than 30 years. During a CapRadio interview with Caggiano in 2006, said she worked at the restaurant night and day.
“I know that I work many hours, but I love what I do so much that I don’t realize when I’m there. I am happy. Do you know, my restaurant is a happy place because people come in, they eat well most of the time and they are happy. And when you see smiling people around you, what else can I ask?” Caggiano said.