If a new restaurant is lucky, it’ll have one destination dish that piques food-geek interest and draws New York’s increasingly discerning eaters across bridges and through tunnels for a mere taste. Lilia—the airy Williamsburg pasta parlor that simultaneously serves as the kitchen comeback and solo debut from acclaimed A Voce vet Missy Robbins—has an entire menu of destination dishes; the biggest problem you’ll have here, other than scoring a free table, is picking a favorite.
Maybe it’s Robbins’s ricotta gnocchi ($19), delicate cheese dumplings covered in a thatch of vibrant, verdant broccoli-basil pesto studded with nutty pistachios. Or is it a deceptively simple bowl of bow-shaped rigatoni ($18), rendered sweet from crushed San Marzano tomatoes and spicy from a prodigious zap of chilies and black pepper? Dreamboat agnolotti ($22), tenderly filled with soft sheep’s-milk cheese and stained sunset-yellow from saffron-laced butter, is also a top contender and the most likely to cause Insta-snapping swoons.
But, despite Robbins’s obvious proficiency with pasta—the chef scored a Michelin star for her refined work at A Voce before departing in 2013; prior to that post, she regularly served a pre-presidency Barack and Michelle Obama at Chicago’s Spiaggia—her signature dish may very well be, of all things, a casual starter of fritters ($7). Rather than usher out yet another plate of voguish cacio e pepe, Robbins rejuvenates the ancient recipe as snacky, savory doughnuts: crispy, fresh-from-the-fryer hulls dusted in Parmesan and pepper give way to a cheese-oozing core that recall San Gennaro street food (in a great way).
It’s a clever riff, but like much of the menu, it’s no cheap trick. A prosciutto antipasto is updated with smooth parmigiano butter and mustard seeds soaked in balsamic ($12). Beneath a cloak of house-pulled mozzarella, garlic bread is imbued with a subtle brininess, courtesy bottarga ($9). And grilled littlenecks arrive like newfangled clams casino, crammed with buttery bread crumbs and a healthy dose of lip-swelling Calabrian chili ($16). These are nonna staples with 2016 standards.
Robbins’s cooking throughout is exceedingly smart, assured and refreshingly consistent. The chef holds court at a counter that separates the bustling open kitchen from the sprawling, skylit dining room, performing quality control on the tenderness of a lamb leg as it’s pulled from a roaring wood-fired grill and the spice level of the salsa verde that coats a dish of black bass and roasted Yukon Gold potatoes ($27). (It’s just right, FYI.) That attention to detail renders even the most straightforward preparations—like crimped mafaldine barely dressed in Parmigiano-Reggiano and pink peppercorn ($18)—stunning in their simplicity. Ingredients are sparsely listed on the menu, but not out of some coy Brooklyn minimalism—what you see is what you get at Lilia. And trust us, you’ll be happy with what you get.
RECOMMENDED: 101 best things do in NYC