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April 12, 2009

Biba

Lobster Ravioli Dominic Armato

It may have been over three months ago and taken far too long to work its way into the blog, but dinner at Biba was something I'd been looking forward to for a very long time.

Close to a decade, in fact! I'm a bit of a Biba Caggiano fan. She may not be as revered as Marcella or as visible as Lidia, but I've always enjoyed her writing and recipes. So when my ladylove first mentioned that she'd be interviewing with a practice in Sacramento, I'm a little embarrassed to admit that the very first thought to cross my mind was that a visit to Biba might be in the making. Though we didn't end up moving to Sacramento, I did get my opportunity when we visited to check out the city before making our decision. And while the food was exactly what I expected, I can't say the same of the restaurant.

AntipastiDominic Armato
Biba (the restaurant, not the signora) is no spring chicken. After teaching classes on Italian cooking in Sacramento for over ten years, Biba first opened the restaurant that bears her name in 1986, at a time when calamari hadn't yet been introduced to the popular lexicon. Over twenty years later, her kitchen still turns out unimpeachable Italian fare, but the restaurant itself is almost a victim of its era. The Biba I knew coming into the trip was one who loved the inherent simplicity in good Italian food. Her sensibilities were borne of her mother's kitchen, corner trattorie and the joy of exceptional ingredients, minimally manipulated. So in preparation for our trip, when I actually visited the restaurant's website, I was more than a little surprised to discover that it's not a warm, casual trattoria but rather a fairly formal, upscale ristorante.

Pork Belly with PearsDominic Armato
I was even more surprised when we walked in the front door, though given that the restaurant was launched when Miami Vice was at the peak of its popularity, I suppose I shouldn't have been. Even more striking than the pink neon sign is the lounge that you pass through on the way to the main dining room, dim, heavily mirrored and featuring live piano nightly. Moving from that environment into the gleaming dining room almost necessitates sunglasses (which, come to think of it, seem kind of appropriate), as it's large, brightly lit and done primarily in white from the ceiling almost down to the floor, including the servers' tuxedoes in between. It's not sterile, but it's not exactly warm and inviting, either. The staff more than makes up for this, however, including Biba herself, who spent most of our meal walking around and greeting what seemed like every table in the restaurant.

Spaghetti ai Frutti di MareDominic Armato
The menu is straight-up traditional Italian, much of it surprisingly simple for the trappings. My ladylove started with a plate of assorted antipasti, featuring a slice of burrata, some manner of cured pork, marinated artichokes, a few olives and grilled bread. This was simple even by Italian standards, but everything was of the highest quality and perfectly delicious. My starter was a little less conventional, and I adored it. I received a chunk of pork belly paired with pears and a bit of frisée, but the technique made it sing. The meat was tender and moist with a luscious layer of fat that dissolved away on contact with the exception of the outermost surface, which had been seared until brown and lightly crisped. The pears were lightly cooked and the frisée dressed with olive oil and an abundance of salt -- perfect foil for the fatty pork and sweet pears. Pork belly is a habit of mine, and I now count this version among my favorites.

Lobster RavioliDominic Armato
There were a couple of unique pastas on the menu, so it was with a little bit of guilt that I chose a basic spaghetti ai frutti di mare for my primo, but I hadn't had one in ages and it was calling out to me. It was perfect, with a mix of fresh seafood, dry pasta with bite and just enough of a velvety tomato sauce that had been infused with the flavor of the sea. What surprised me was that it was nothing I didn't expect. It's a staple of casual restaurants -- one that's frequently dressed-up for upscale service -- but here Biba left it simple and pure, as you might get it from a corner trattoria. Mind you, this is not a complaint. I received exactly what I'd hoped for and I'd go right back and get it again. But like my ladylove's antipasti, I found it a little incongruous with the surroundings.

Rabbit with PeppersDominic Armato
Her pasta was another story. The menu features a stuffed pasta that changes daily, and on this particular day it was lobster ravioli. I only had a taste, but they were dynamite, with a light sauce only barely touched by tomato and a bold filling. This is the kind of dish that is butchered everywhere, made heavy and buried in cream, but here it was beautiful and light. Simple at heart, but more sophisticated in execution than your average trattoria fare. And then, the entrees were right back to the simple and hearty. I went with a rabbit in red pepper sauce with grilled polenta which was the sole disappointment of the evening. The sauce was lovely, full and complex but not too heavy, with a bit of tomato, fresh herbs and spiked with pancetta, but the rabbit was really tougher and drier than it should have been, even if it was still quite enjoyable in this state.

Romaine with Gorgonzola DressingDominic Armato
Meanwhile, my ladylove, not feeling the meat that evening, rounded out the meal with a simple salad consisting of romaine, toasted pine nuts and slices of pear in a gorgonzola dressing. The balance was just what I remember of the salads in Italy. Even when they feature assertive ingredients, Italian salads never seem to forget that they're about the lettuce. The dressing was exceptionally light, the gorgonzola actually supporting rather than smacking you around as it's wont to do, and it was so pleasantly refreshing that when my ladylove went the traditional route, ordering an apple tart with a scoop of gelato for dessert, I went the typically Italian route of finishing my meal with a salad. After those greens, anything sweet would have only beem heavy.

Apple TartDominic Armato
It was a great meal. Simple, beautiful execution, exceptional ingredients -- it was everything I pine for in an Italian restaurant. I just can't get past what seems, to me, to be the stark incongruity between the soul of the food and the restaurant that serves it. There are a few more sophisticated dishes to be found on the menu, but so much of it is so simple that it would seem just at home if not more so on a bare wooden table crammed into the corner of a tiny family-run trattoria. Perhaps that kind of a restaurant never would have flown in 1986, I don't know. But I do know that while Biba Caggiano certainly doesn't need my advice, I walked out feeling as though what she needs to do is open a second restaurant. She's a lovely lady, a diminutive figure dwarfed by her dining room, and I couldn't help but feel that the woman and her food would seem so much more at home in a restaurant that's small, cozy, warm and completely informal, featuring dishes like the simpler ones we had. This isn't a knock on Biba the restaurant. It was a great meal, I was thrilled to have it and I'd return in a heartbeat. But while her restaurant is formal, it seems to me as though her heart -- and her food -- is still back in her mother's kitchen.

Biba
www.biba-restaurant.com
2801 Capitol Avenue
Sacramento, CA 95816
916-455-2422
Mon - Thu11:30 AM - 2:00 PM5:30 PM - 9:30 PM
Fri11:30 AM - 2:00 PM5:30 PM - 10:00 PM
Sat5:30 PM - 10:00 PM

Comments

Long time lurker first time poster... I love your blog, and thought I might be able to add a thought regarding Biba. I don't know this for sure, but imagine it might be the case as to why the decor/ambiance and menu are so incongruous; When Biba's first opened there were no other upscale restaurants in Sac. For many, many years Biba was THE only fine dining place to go. Perhaps, it has stayed that way out of tradition.
Too bad for us you didn't settle here. I'd love lot's more postings on eats in my hometown :)

Okay, here's my thing, I love apple pie. I love it. My grandmother made the best apple pie ever, and now that she's gone I make it, but it'll never be as good as hers. Even when I make it my wife refers to it as "Bessie's apple pie." And loving it as I do I order it every time I see any version of it out. Why oh why can't anyone make apple pie in a restaurant setting? You don't really mention a reaction to the apple tart, and though it looks pretty good I'm inclined to guess that she had the same reaction I have 100% of the time, slight disappointment.

I'm sure the gelato was excellent, I can't top that, but I've made a hundred apple pies at least and I've never found one anywhere in the world that compares to grandma's simple formula. I'm sure there's a diner out there somewhere cranking out the best apple pie ever, and I'm begging you to find it.

So please, what did the good doctor think of the apple tart?

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