Show up to Lilia as a walk-in and you might wind up feeling stepped on. “We have nothing available,” the host said almost aggressively, responding to our request for a table. We could be put on the waitlist for the bar, he said, though it was “already pretty full.” Being discouraged from sticking around (wasn’t it our choice whether or not to wait?) was one of the odder service blips I’ve ever experienced.
It’s also an unfortunate one, because once you’re seated in its skylighted dining room, Lilia emerges as a victorious homecoming for one of our city’s great Italian chefs. Missy Robbins, who cooked for the Obamas at Chicago’s Spiaggia in the early Aughts, and whose rustic stylings snagged Michelin stars for both NYC locations of A Voce, is playing for keeps in Williamsburg. At Lilia, which opened in late January, she consults with her crew amid a sprawling open kitchen; a fire roars in the deep Grillworks hearth behind them. The airy space, formerly an auto body shop, is now lit by glowing lamps.
It’s been eight years since Robbins first arrived in New York, three since she last helmed a kitchen of her own. The return also marks her debut as a restaurant owner, and the results are mostly excellent. A tiny anterior café that doubles as a second bar for diners waiting at night is a pleasant nook for sipping bitter aperitifs and snacking on cheesy cacio e pepe fritters. Meanwhile, on the main menu, produce and fish get top billing: Capers and blood orange add dimension to slices of charred fennel, and cauliflower and romanesco get a kick of soppressata and Sicilian pesto. The bagna càuda, a piquant anchovy dip served with vegetables both raw and cooked, is bracing, while a dish of seared swordfish and ramps unites straightforward technique and seasonality. Two of the most popular items at our table: a plate of cured sardines on garlic toast and an order of clams in the shell, grilled with savory stuffing and Calabrian chiles.
A noodle savant, Robbins brings her gluten A-game to Lilia, preparing half a dozen well-portioned pastas. Choose any of them — ricotta gnocchi with broccoli pesto and pistachios, malfadine ribbons with parmesan and pink peppercorns — and you’ll leave happier than you arrived. She does a lot with the simplest ingredient combinations, teaming pancetta and spring garlic with spaghetti, and San Marzano tomatoes and chiles for rigatoni diavolo. And don’t skip her oblong agnolotti stuffed with sheep’s-milk cheese and coated in saffron-honey butter.
Carnivores needn’t fear being left out, either. The dinner menu features a trio of meat entrées, the best of which is a huge lamb leg steak rubbed with coriander, garlic, and aniseed and topped with crunchy celery and fennel; it arrives pink and charred, with a gamy layer of fat. Less cumbersome is a tender veal flank steak joined by onions and a green-pepper mash. Juicy chicken legs are missing crisp skin but are saved by an olive-and-caper sauce. Meat might not dominate the menu, but these dishes are far from afterthoughts.
Soft-serve gelato headlines the dessert menu, and Lilia invites diners to dress up their scoops with candied orange peel, salted hazelnuts, and amaretti cookies. A ginger-apple crostata could use more mascarpone, but Robbins’s intensely flavored chocolate and olive oil cakes perfectly embody this ambitious, and often masterful, solo project.
567 Union Avenue, Brooklyn
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