New York does not suffer from a shortage of impressive Italian restaurants. Since the beginning of the year alone, we've seen the openings of Ignacio Mattos' Altro Paradiso (the subversive kitchen hides potato chips underneath beef carpaccio) Mario Batali's La Sirena (as big as Tao), Scott Conant's Impero Caffè (the chef's saucy return to Midtown), Tim Cushman's Covina (his non-Japanese debut in Manhattan), David Chang's Nishi (a Korean-tinged pasta parlor), and Robert Bohr's Pasquale Jones (an ode to pizzas and Zalto wine stems).
I could, if I were so inclined, easily review nothing but new Italian venues until Memorial Day (and Japanese omakase spots until mid-summer). But I won't. Because even though many of these pasta places are quite satisfying, few feel like the type of distinctive or groundbreaking venues we'll remember five years on. For now, it's hard not to wonder whether the city's hospitality gurus are just taking a cue from Hollywood and feeding us second servings of a proven Sunday gravy formula: spin-offs, sequels, more of the same.
It's this environment, Italian restaurants as interchangeable asteroid movies, into which chef Missy Robbins returns after a multi-year absence from running a kitchen — most recently, she was executive chef at New York's duo of A Voce restaurants, before that she ran Chicago's famed Spiaggia. And while the field is crowded, the good news is the chef has just enough tricks up her sleeve to place Lilia near the top.
Let's start with cacio e pepe. The dish — a simple Roman preparation of pasta with pecorino and black pepper — is at the pinnacle of trendiness right now, its increasingly infinite riffs and re-creations (go ahead, google the listicles) feeling less like a delicious study in thrift, and more like a slew of chefs pandering to an easy point of reference. The dish is not that expensive, and it's not that spicy. It's vegetarian, but without any vegetables. It is buttery noodles but without butter. It's a classic that's been turned into a condiment. Cacio e pepe is the next Buffalo chicken pizza.
It is, in short, a sign that the New York culinary world might be running out of ideas. But then, at Lilia, Missy Robbins shows up and transforms the dish into a life-changing bite.
You might eat the fritters — or fritelle, as they're called on the menu — in Lilia's tiny cafe (which serves as a de facto waiting room for the main dining area), maybe while waiting for a server to ferry over an $18 peppercorn-laced IPA. They're an Italian improvement on French gougéres, little balls of asiago-laced pate a choux fried until they reach a proper crispy-on-the-outside-gooey-on-the-inside texture, and then dusted with pecorino and pepper — as if they were savory street fair zeppole with a little touch of heat. At home, it would be an economic use of kitchen scraps; in Robbins' hands, it's a $6 luxury.
A fire-breathing wood grill sears lamb steaks a stone's throw away from the bar.
With the fritters in one hand and your beer in the other, all of a sudden the 90-minute wait for a table (the quote on a Thursday) doesn't seem so bad. A fire-breathing wood grill sears lamb steaks a stone's throw away from the bar. Chefs toss rich pappardelle bolognese in the open kitchen. And in back, a soft serve machine waits to be called on as a first-aid tool to counter the restaurant's markedly spicy rigatoni diavola.
The riffs don't stop. Diners looking for something like a fluke crudo might instead find themselves ordering pungent cured sardines over buttered bread ($13). Robbins' idea of a savory toast is topped not with avocado but rather a beige chestnut cream, studded with ribbons of crimson pancetta. She hawks a fried whitebait starter that's enough for three, a fistful of musky little guppies packing the flavor of a summer tide pool — cleanse the proverbial sand off your palate with a perfumey sylvaner from Alto Adige, and toast to the hope of warmer weather.
Robbins, 45, runs Lilia with Sean Feeney, 35, both of whom commute into Williamsburg from their respective West Village apartments. (There goes the neighborhood, right?) Feeney is the money. And that money is evident in the space, 2,200 square feet of concrete floors, cathedral-height ceilings pieced with worn-wood beams, mod gray leather banquettes (very Copenhagen), and windows with more surface area than some Manhattan studio apartments.
On looks alone, some will naturally think of Lilia as yet another chic restaurant in this increasingly homogenized slice of North Williamsburg (Andrew Carmellini is opening up his own wood fired-Italian spot a quarter mile away in this fall). The 70-seat venue replaces a former auto body shop on the corner of Union and North 10th, and sits between two steel and brick apartment buildings (units start around $2,700) that could easily pass muster as NYU dorms or a new Battery Park City mini-complex.
The smarter view, however, is to think of Lilia as a modern red-sauce counterpoint to the hundred-year-old Bamonte's not too far away, itself a venue that's held onto its old-Brooklyn vitality even as the Manhattanization of Williamsburg creeps ever eastward. Robbins tips her hat to the Italian-American tradition of old with what the menu calls "burratino toast," and which turns out to be an exceptional take on garlic bread. She sets slices of warm, house-made mozzarella on crisp bread and tops off this delicacy with a lifetime's supply of garlic and — somewhat unexpectedly — just a whisper of fishy bottarga, to keep the palate from getting too cozy with an otherwise nostalgic affair.
Robbins also nods at the past with a take on the beloved bivalve that is clams casino, though she swaps out the traditional bacon and peppers in favor of smoky Calabrian chiles and breadcrumbs. The littlenecks, warmed on the wood grill, pack just a whisper of brine; the breadcrumbs, infused with butter, evoke an edible version of sand; and the fiery chile, doing its best impression of the crimson oil that drips off a slice of pizza, imparts a low-level heat that lingers.
Vegetables — from soppressata-speckled cauliflower to almond-topped trumpet mushrooms — are strong. But stronger still are the pastas, served in portions a touch larger than the five-bite mid-courses other restaurants are passing off as macaroni. Robbins coats mafaldine (imagine a 1970s tuxedo with ruffled fronds) with a week's worth of parmigiano and ground pink peppercorn; think of it as an Emilia Romagna-esque analogue to cacio e pepe.
She drenches tart sheep's milk cheese agnolotti with so much heady saffron, you could probably make bouillabaisse with the leftover honey butter sauce. And she douses that rigatoni in enough chile-infused tomato sauce to cause your brow to sweat.
Heat is also at the heart of Lilia's best main dish, a veal steak that's less about the intrinsic flavor of the young calf, and more about using the light, subtle meat as a delivery mechanism for the fresh salsa it's garnished with, a blend of serranos, lemon juice, and mint; the electric hum a diner might experience while consuming this is not unlike the joy of eating a yuzu kosho scallop at Sushi Nakazawa, except that at Lilia you get ten bites instead of one.
Trust me when I say it can go head to head with most of the New York strips in this town and win.
And just as April Bloomfield subverted everyone's burger expectations when she debuted the Breslin's menu in 2008 offering only one made of lamb, Robbins keeps it real without a single traditional steak on the menu; instead she gives us a piece of lamb, a thinner, 14-ounce leg cut of sweet, gamey, greasy bliss, tamed by a swath of verdant chimichurri. Trust me when I say it can go head to head with most of the New York strips in this town and win.
There are composed desserts — including a fine apple tart — but the right call at the end of the meal is a soft-serve gelato delivered in a glass cup, anointed with your choice of toppings; try garnishing it with candied orange rind for an impromptu creamsicle. It's the type of create-your-own sundae policy more characteristic of a Sizzler than a fine dining chef, and it's precisely the sort of thing that makes this smarter-than-average blockbuster of a restaurant feel just distinct enough from the larger Italian pack.
Cost: Starters at $7-$15; pastas at $19-$22; mains at $21-$28.
Sample dishes: Cacio e pepe fritelle, toasted chestnut cream and pancetta over grilled bread, rigatoni diavola, sheep's milk cheese agnolotti with saffron, mafaldini with pink peppercorn and parmesan, grilled veal flank steak, soft serve gelato.
Bonus tip: Lilia's cafe is open throughout the day for coffee, soft-serve, and pastries.