Missy Robbins’ concoctions challenged every taste bud of mine, leaving me positively muddled and in awe of her bold choices.
For many the Lilia journey begins 30-45 days prior. The struggle to score a reservation is akin to getting on a Brooklyn-bound L train that isn’t delayed due to “routine scheduled maintenance,” which is exceptionally routine but never actually scheduled. For me, it was however a lot easier: 1) Find a friend who makes restaurant reservations 30 days in advance; 2) Wait for said friend’s friend to cancel on her; 3) Say yes when invited. Follow these three simple steps and you will be surprised at how many exclusive spots you find yourself at.
While restaurants are generally famous for their food, my favorite part of the experience was our server, whose elaborate explanations of each dish and the origins of their ingredients had me tasting my meal even before it reached my plate. He remained patient despite my incessant questioning, to the point where we learned the average width of cucumber pieces in the salad and the address of the local farm that grew little gem lettuce exclusively for the Lilia’s antipasti needs (thanks Jesse!).
After much deliberation, a little debate, and a visibly scratched out notepad, we aligned our first dishes: Cacio e Pepe Frittelle and Cucumbers, Calabrian Chili, Coriander, Fennel, Sheeps Milk Cheese. Yes, we were also unsure about the cucumbers (after all it’s 96% water and 4% cucumber) but the server’s description of the dish had us switch from the little gem salad to a riskier option which, needless to say, paid off. The appetizers complemented each other perfectly. The fried cacio e pepe balls tasted exactly like the pasta, crumpled and stuffed into a sphere with an airy middle and coated with fried breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese and crushed peppercorn bits. While the peppercorn did seem to initially overwhelm that first bite, the warm and semi-melted cacio quickly harmonized the sharp peppercorns creating a hybrid flavor and texture I had to close my eyes to fully appreciate.
Keeping with the theme of blending ingredients to create unexpected flavors, the accompanying salad was composed of a base of olive oil-coated sliced cucumbers, topped with a healthy amount of sheep’s milk cheese and a drizzle of a red chili paste, fennel, and cracked coriander seeds. The composition mirrored a battle taking place between the creamy cheese and vigorous spices, in an arena of fresh cucumbers. The softness of the sheep’s milk cheese neutralized the vibrant flavors emitted by the spicy calabrian chili, crunchy cracked coriander, and acidic hint of red wine vinegar, creating a sharp yet supple affair. My focus with this salad was constantly drawn towards the fennel which seemed to dominate the dish, probably less because that was the chef’s intention and more because it extracted memories from my middle school days. Every lunch break we would rush to street vendors camped outside the school gate and buy a handful of fresh fennel stems, nibbling on the seeds as we walked back to class. Never did I think I’d continue to enjoy those simple pleasures in one of New York’s best restaurants 15 years later.
Midway through the appetizers, we ordered our two mains: Mafaldini, Pink Peppercorn, Parmigiano and Sheeps Milk Cheese filled Agnolotti, Saffron, Dried Tomato, Honey. My inherent need to try new things initially fought back on these picks – after all there are quite a few repeated ingredients between the appetizers and mains – but I grew confident that a few sips of my Milano Sour would let me reset my palette and enjoy the mains independently of the first course. The Mafaldini is a flat and wavy ribbon-shaped pasta, similar to a linguine or fettuccine but wider, thicker, and possibly longer. Unlike the cacio e pepe appetizer, the pink peppercorn here was a milder flavor that added a hint of peppermint, letting you fully taste the thick pasta bands. More than the flavors it was the texture and thickness of the unevenly cut mafaldini which made it stand out among the sea of pasta dishes found at the other 1,592 Italian restaurants in New York.
If someone were to ever bring down a summer cloud, cut it into small rectangular pieces, and fill it with cheese, my guess is it would taste a lot like Lilia’s agnolotti. These soft ravioli-esque pieces were subtly coated with dried tomato flavors, honey, and saffron. An agnolotti is pretty much a ravioli except that it’s made from a single piece folded over versus two separate pieces of pasta as in a ravioli. The MVP here was the sheeps milk cheese filling which, aided by the sweet honey drizzle, tasted quite different from the chili-topped cheese in the cucumber salad. This dish was the perfect transition to dessert with the honey, cheese, and saffron competing against each other for attention from my sweet taste buds hiding in plain sight at the tip of my tongue.
The final leg of this adventure took place in a clear glass cup with soft serve vanilla gelato sitting in what can only be described as a pool of extra virgin olive oil. The Italian Job was poetically topped with sea salt, honey, and fennel pollen, creating a unique medley of flavors that chaperoned me on the midnight train back home. It is not often that one is forced to stop and think during a meal – about flavors, textures and how ingredients complement or clash with each other. This chic Williamsburg hotspot epitomizes the city it resides in, serving unexpected blends to unsuspecting visitors in a beautifully accidental flair, leaving one with more questions than answers.