As I write this, I have at my side a copy of "Italy al Dente," by Biba Caggiano, an excellent cookbook published in 1998. As I look back at yesterday's review and the visits to Biba the restaurant in the weeks prior, I am reminded of Caggiano's passion for Italy, Italian food and, as much as anything, good, old-fashioned hospitality.
The focus at Biba, her restaurant at 28th and Capitol, is usually on the food. In my review, I pointed out that many people have misconceptions about the restaurant and that the interior design tends to perpetuate its reputation as stiff, stuffy, formal, intimidating and expensive.
What can be done to change that? As the restaurateur herself told me, they are going to close Biba for a week in July to redecorate, with an eye toward a warmer, more casual feeling. If I were the interior designer and was looking for inspiration, I would read a couple of her books. In "Italy al Dente," for instance, Caggiano writes, "Please don't be intimidated. Just think that this is only food and not brain surgery. If you make a mistake, you can always start over." Could she be any less intimidating?
In one chapter, the author goes into detail about how to do perform essential kitchen tasks, such as peeling tomatoes, roasting peppers, cleaning mussels and clams. She also goes into detail about soups, which I think are her restaurant's best-kept secret. Wherever I go, I almost always order soup. To me, it's a reliable indicator of the kitchen's commitment - to flavors, to old-fashioned values. Soups not only nourish and soothe, they reveal simple truths. In "Italy al Dente," Caggiano writes, "Soups are the best kept secret of Italian cooking. There are regions of Italy where soup, not pasta, appears on the table daily and is considered the most important element of the meal." She goes on to explain the importance of broths made from scratch and then explains in detail how to make meat, chicken and vegetable broths.
In recent weeks, the soups at Biba have become even more important, in my estimation. We have just witnessed the closing of two of the city's soup masters, Fog Mountain Café and La Bonne Soupe. Biba doesn't get as much attention for its soups, but they are excellent and essential components of a beautiful meal - especially a beautiful Italian meal.
Finally, readers may have noticed that I left the category for "ambience" unrated and withheld half a star in the overall rating category. I suppose that falls under the unwritten category "wait and see." Many could argue rather strongly that Biba is one of the best, if not the very best, restaurant we have. When you consider the food, the service, the consistency of the experience and Caggiano's guidance and hospitality, you have a strong case. My only hesitation is that sometimes the dining room at the restaurant resembles neither Caggiano nor her books - nor those wonderful soups. If the interior designer can capture that spirit and pour it into the colors on the walls and have the décor complement rather than contradict the food, it will be a very special restaurant indeed.