Chef Missy Robbins is back in the kitchen after a three-year hiatus, this time cooking soulful Italian fare out of a chicly converted auto body shop in N.Y.C.’s Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The Michelin-starred chef formerly helmed two N.Y.C locations of A Voce, and the Chicago, IL-based Spiaggia, a favorite of the Obama family.
Lilia, which officially opened its doors January 19, is already garnering hype for its deliciously fresh pasta. Prior to my reservation, a co-worker insisted that I try “the ruffle-y noodles,” a dish she’d seen cropping up on her Instagram feed. As it turns out, the noodles—more formally known as malfadine with pink peppercorns and parmigiano reggiano—is already one of the eatery’s most popular plates. Perfectly al dente and creamy with just a trace of welcome heat, it’s clear why the malfadine is gaining a reputation. Equally wonderful is the papardelle with veal bolognese, porcini, and nutmeg, simple in its ingredients yet complex in flavor.
From a strong list of antipasti, our party ordered the bagna cauda, a traditional warm garlic and anchovy dip served with winter vegetables; romanesco with spicy soppressata (dry salami), Sicilian pesto, and marjoram; and a plate of sweet roasted squash with parmigiano, pine nuts, and brown butter (a must-order).
For a main course, we shared juicy grilled scallops with walnuts, yogurt, and marjoram, and black bass atop coal roasted potatoes, slathered with a salsa verde that I would happily eat on everything—veggies, French fries, toast, by the spoonful, through a straw… The dish is chef Robbins’s current favorite and is cooked in a pan directly over the coals in Lilia’s wood-fired grill, yielding a flawlessly crisp skin and tender flesh. We made a mistake in not ordering a second portion.
It was at this point, with my phone hovering over the delicate white fish and bright smear of salsa verde (for work, obviously), that chef Robbins excused herself from the open kitchen at the heart of the restaurant to come over to our table. “I don’t want to hear any complaints that your food is cold!” she scolded me jokingly, in reference to my amateur photo-shoot. While embarrassing, the moment presented itself as an opportunity for me to chat with Robbins about her cooking philosophy. She explained that most of the menu items are comprised of only a few simple ingredients in order to let each aspect of the dish shine.
Chef Robbins’s attitude toward food is reflected in Lilia’s no-fuss interior décor: high ceilings and whitewashed walls accented by refurbished iron casement windows, exposed brick, and natural wood tables. The custom-made neutral ceramic serveware was crafted by Jono Pandolfi, whose work is also featured at renowned N.Y.C. restaurants The NoMad and Eleven Madison Park. In fact, the vessels provided Robbins with inspiration for her famous malfadine. She sprinkled the pasta with pink peppercorns to compliment the blush exterior of Pandolfi’s bowl; serendipitously, the combination was more than just anesthetically pleasing.
To conclude our epic meal, we indulged in a classic olive oil cake topped with fresh whipped cream and peaches, an unbelievable rustic apple crostata that Robbins insisted we eat with our hands, and a serving of decadent chocolate gelato dusted with espresso powder. (A Lilia take-away café, opening soon in Williamsburg, will feature this gelato, along with housemade pastries, sweet and savory focaccias, and sandwiches.)
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the dining experience was Robbins’s presence both inside and outside the kitchen. When she’s not manning the grill, she's sharing a laugh with her staff, chatting with patrons, and making her guests feel at home. I am eager to return, both for the soul-satiating food and warm environment created by chef Robbins and her team.