567 Union Avenue, Williamsburg
In Rome, my favorite place to go for aperitivo was a restaurant called Gusto. Every night, it would buzz with locals and expats like myself eager to catch up with friends over a glass of wine and the city’s best spread of small bites. The space was vaguely industrial, with whitewashed walls, high ceilings, and huge windows filling it with natural light. The wine list was extensive; the servers never rushed you out. It was the place I always wanted to meet up with friends.
Lilia, the highly anticipated new restaurant by Missy Robbins, is that kind of place. Anytime a Michelin-star-caliber chef opens a restaurant in Brooklyn, it’s a big deal, but you never know if it will actually live up to the hype. When I arrived for dinner at 7pm on a Wednesday, there were no empty tables, and over the course of a leisurely meal, I began to understand why. The space, a former auto-body shop reimagined by designers Nico Arze and Matthew Maddy, feels sleek yet cozy, with the aforementioned whitewashed walls, large windows, and high ceilings, plus light wood tables, glowing candles, and an open kitchen over which Robbins presides. All the design details are there, right down to the handmade ceramics by Jono Pandolfi, who created the dishes for Eleven Madison Park among other high profile venues. Pasta and seafood play starring roles on the seven-part menu, but you can easily mix and match the small and large plates or even just drop by the bar for a glass of Aglianico and some luscious mozzarella—made in-house of course.
When Robbins set out to open her own spot, she wanted to emphasize the lighter side of Italian cooking. Sure, red sauce joints have their purpose, but this style is much closer to the way Italians actually eat everyday. The grilled squid, which arrived perfectly cooked, tasted like it was just caught off the Amalfi Coast, and could have stood on its own without its tomato accoutrement. The malfadini—like fettuccini but with squiggly edges—was reminiscent of traditional Roman cacio e pepe, though Robbins uses pink peppercorns and parmigiano reggiano instead of goat’s milk cheese. I couldn’t put my finger on the rich, concentrated flavors of the salsa verde that accompanied the black bass, but I didn’t want to stop eating it. For dessert, the moist olive oil cake managed to be both dense and light by some magic alchemy, and came with whipped cream and a few refreshingly tart slices of persimmon.
I can’t claim to know how Robbins managed to create a place that feels both authentically Italian and oh-so-rooted in Brooklyn, but almost three years after leaving A Voce, she’s opened a restaurant that comes off as effortless despite all the hard work and planning that went into it. If only there was a Gusto-style buffet, I’d be there several times a week.