On the fourth night that the midtown Sacramento restaurant Biba was open, we dropped in for dinner. We had risotto with an array of bright seasonal vegetables, tortelloni in a silken and buttery tomato sauce, grilled sturgeon with a sauce of sorrel and red peppers, and a grilled veal chop scented with leaves of fresh sage and sweetened with red and green peppers.
That was 20 years ago this month. The subsequent report we filed was upbeat, noting that the menu was absolutely free of the sorts of cliches common to Italian restaurants of that era, that dishes were honest, wholesome and harmonious, that the setting was sophisticated, romantic and sleek, that the service was professional, and that owner Biba Caggiano circulated about the room, greeting guests, answering questions and beaming confidently, looking not at all fretful over whether Sacramento would embrace her revolutionary and passionate approach to regional Italian cooking.
Last night, both Biba the restaurant and Biba the restaurateur were humming as if absolutely nothing had changed over the past two decades, aside from some changes in personnel and art. Caggiano again was approaching each table, joking with some guests, explaining candidly to others why she does things the way she does them, thereby creating a landmark restaurant recognized well beyond Sacramento for its highly personable, passionate and proud interpretation of the noble Italian culinary arts.
Last night we had two dishes we had that first week 20 years ago, a sunny salad of green and yellow tomatoes with red onion and fresh basil, and a dessert of half a baked fresh peach with an Amaretto zabaglione. They, along with several other courses from the restaurant's first two years - juicy breaded lamb chops with sweet-and-sour onions, a rich toss of penne with prosciutto, shallots, tomatoes and peas, and cold veal sliced as thin as paper, topped with a marvelous sauce of mayonnaise, capers and tuna - were from a special 20th-anniversary supplemental menu that Biba is making available at dinner until Aug. 12.
The special menu's prices are the same as they were originally, like $6 for the veal, $13.75 for the lamb chops, and $3.50 each for the tomato salad and the baked peach. It's a tasting menu, meaning the portions are smaller than they were originally, but no one should leave hungry. By tasting-menu standards, they were generous, the selection was varied and fitting for the season, and anyone who takes advantage of the promotion should walk out a fan of Biba, if they weren't already.
We left the restaurant wishing that Biba permanently would add a similar multi-course, fixed-price tasting menu to her admittedly already extensive and evocative list of dishes. Restaurant diners these days seem to be becoming more interested in more variety and less interested in the large portions that characterize so much dining out in the United States, as well as prices that continue to rise. Savvy restaurateurs are responding to these concerns with prix-fixe menus. No one ever has suggested that Biba Caggiano isn't a savvy restaurateur. Twenty years of local culinary history confirm that, so such a tactic may not be needed in her case. But last night's dinner sure was fun, and I heard several comments just as excited about the approach from neighboring diners, so maybe we will see a repeat before another 20 years elapses.