With Italian cooking, as in many others, you can go heavier or you can go lighter—a hearty, braised cut of meat or a delicate grilled fish.
At her new Williamsburg restaurant Lilia, chef Missy Robbins has gone for the dishes she loves most: the simplest, lightest ones.
Those who knew her cooking when she was at A Voce will find the same flavors, but “more comforting—food I want to eat,” she said.
Everything about it says light: the space, which was converted from an auto body shop, has huge windows, a soaring ceiling, skylights—it’s an artist’s dream of a studio space—and tons and tons of room. As she points out, it’s the kind of space you just can’t get in Manhattan.
In the center, in the open kitchen and at the very heart of the restaurant, is a custom-made wood-fire grill. Ingenious crankwheels allow for the grilling surface to be adjusted, closer or further from the coals, as needed. Squid, for example, is grilled very close to the coals; chicken is cooked at a higher level, said Robbins.
The dishes are light, but they are full of flavor, partly because of the ingredients and partly because of the transformation by fire they undergo.
Grilled Squid ($12), for example, is delicate with a nice hint of bite, but that smoky char—especially on the legs—makes for really satisfying and addicting eating. Some preserved Corbari tomatoes, sweet and tangy, add an intense pop reminiscent of summer.
Scallops ($15) also get the grilling treatment, and are served over yogurt with walnuts. Here the predominant note comes from fresh, sweet marjoram.
In the vegetable department, fennel also takes a trip through the wood fire grill, making it both satisfying as well as refreshing with slices of blood orange and marinated capers ($12).
A branzino fillet ($26) comes with crispy skin and salsa verde, over buttery melt-in-your-mouth potatoes that are cooked for up to 2 hours over hot coals. The salsa verde provides an herbal punch, with a delicious injection of parsley, tarragon, and chives.
All in all, eating at Lilia, if you closed your eyes, could make you feel like you’re eating by the sea, in the middle of an Italian summer. And that’s not at all a bad place to be.
Pasta, all made in-house, is a shining part of the menu. It’s the one thing Robbins would make in the kitchen all day, if she had to pick. There’s an extruder out back that cranks out pastas like rigatoni and “mafaldini.”
Also known as “reginette” (or little queens), mafaldini ($18) has wavy edges that bear a resemblance to the scalloped crowns worn by princesses and queens or, some say, to intricate lace dresses. Either way, those edges are great for sauce and cheese to cling to, and make for a texture that’s playful and fun to eat. Here, Robbins pairs the pasta with Parmigiano-Reggiano and pink peppercorns.
On the other side of the shape spectrum, the rectangular and squat agnolotti are filled with sheep’s milk cheese just waiting to explode at a bite’s notice, complemented by touches of saffron and honey ($22), a combination Robbins said hails from Sardinia.
For dessert, a soft-serve gelato machine makes vanilla and chocolate gelato, served with your choice of toppings. For the chocolate gelato, you can choose from expresso-chocolate powder, salted hazelnuts, or candied citrus (my advice would be to get all three); and for the vanilla, there are lemony walnuts, amaretti cookies, and sprinkles ($8).
A light dessert option is the Olive Oil Cake with persimmon, grappa, and whipped cream; other options, especially if you have more room, would be the apple crostata or the double chocolate torta ($8).
The vibe on a weeknight at Lilia is buzzing. Though Robbins might not have envisioned herself in Brooklyn—she said she didn’t know much about Williamsburg when she was approached by her current partners—she is enjoying the crowd: where A Voce by nature of its Midtown location saw its share of diners out on business, here it’s neighbors who clearly come for pleasure.
There is an adjoining cafe that opened recently, all set to provide the neighborhood with caffeine fuel and offering a morning repast that can easily be taken on the go, like a rustic, sublime grape focaccia or a light maritozzi, a light brioche cut on the side and filled with orange-infused cream. The cafe evolves throughout the day, transitioning from breakfast to pastries, cookies, sandwiches, and soft-serve gelato in the afternoon, until 5 p.m. when it becomes a cocktail bar.
567 Union Ave. (at N. 10th Street)
Monday–Sunday 5:30 p.m.–11 p.m. (Lunch and brunch service to come).
The cafe opens at 7 a.m. daily