June Chang said he fell in love with Italian cooking while working at Biba. Now he has set out to create his own Italian fine-dining experience.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The coronavirus pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the restaurant industry in Sacramento.
But one new Italian fine-dining restaurant opening this spring in East Sacramento is hoping to become a signature destination while honoring the history of its location and its staff.
June Chang said he hopes his new restaurant, Mattone Ristorante, will be open for business in early April 2020. Located at 5723 Folsom Blvd., the site itself was the former home to go-to Italian family-restaurant “Español,” which succumbed to the pandemic after more than 50 years of business in East Sacramento.
“It was a great restaurant. So many people loved it. Unfortunately, they couldn’t move forward when they hit the pandemic. So I am lucky to have found the space, so I can continue what Español did. We’ll try to bring it up to the next level with atmosphere and music and different menus,” Chang said.
While the location honors one iconic restaurant, the theme honors another.
Chang was a long-time bartender at the Sacramento staple Biba Restaurant. He and the restaurant’s namesake, Biba Caggiano, had a special relationship during his eight years working for her.
“Biba was untouchable. She’s a legend. She had a passion for not only food but also she tried to give to everyone more than she asked [from them],” Chang said.
Biba passed away in August 2019 at the age of 82. Her restaurant, which had a 33-year run in Sacramento, closed in May 2020 – another casualty of the pandemic.
“Since the pandemic closed [Biba], we were all looking for a job, and the staff are still looking for a job. I said, ‘You know, I will find a place, we will all put it together. Someday I will reach out to them,” Chang said, and the seed of what would become Mattone was planted.
Chang made good on his promise and he plans to bring over as many of his former colleagues as possible when Mattone opens.
“We all work together in a really good way, like good family and friends,” Chang said.
Mattone is Mattone
Chang fell in love with Italian cooking while working at Biba, but he wants to make one thing clear: Mattone is not Biba. Mattone is Mattone.
“People try to put Biba tags on Mattone and I am concerned people down the road will compare Biba’s food to Mattone’s food,” Chang said. “We are trying to serve high-quality food, but that doesn’t mean it’s like Biba’s food. Of course, there will be food that is similar to that. Anywhere you go that’s Italian you’re going to find the spaghetti, you’re going to find the ravioli, the lasagna. But it does not mean that those things are going to be an exact copy of her food.”
Even the restaurant’s name itself, which translates to “brick” in Italian, could be a metaphor for building something new from the ground up.
“Her books, written by Biba, Biba Restaurant, written by Biba, [they] are perfectly done. They are complete. Mattone is a different restaurant. And myself, and my staff, and the community…we’re going to write a different book,” Chang said.
Its menu will feature old-style Northern Italian dishes, but he promises not to let things get bogged down.
“[Mattone] will try to bring its own style, a little different, a little fun, and make some great quality food. It’s not like American-Italian cooking but based on Italian cooking. And will look to keep adding…with different ingredients, a different style, a different look,” Chang said.
Opening During COVID-19
Despite the fact that he is coming from a restaurant that closed due to coronavirus and opening in a location that closed for the same reason, Chang is filled with hope and optimism.
But he’s not just winging the opening of his first restaurant. He has a plan.
“My plan is, we open in April, that it will be better than today. I hope that we will be able to open for indoor dining, and we will focus on that a little bit, but more likely we will focus on to-go until everything gets better,” Chang said.
And things to be trending in his favor. California Department of Public Health data on Feb. 11 showed the most recent 7-day test positivity rate had fallen to 4.8% and the daily number of new positive cases is under 8,400 — down from 53,000+ in December 2020.
If that trend continues, along with an increase in vaccinations, Mattone could be opening its doors sooner rather than later.
“After two or three months maybe just focusing on to-go [orders] then we can hopefully do more indoor dining and share that experience,” Chang said. “I’m going to bring in a piano eventually, so hopefully people can come and enjoy the time, music, food – these are the kinds of things I want to share with people.”
It’s the experience, the food, and the atmosphere that Chang hopes will endear Mattone to the community for years to come.
“We’ll try to make this the signature, destination restaurant for this community,” Chang said.
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