This burg has changed. 30 years ago, when I was a young shy boy-man growing in Brooklyn, Williamsburg was the place I used to go to fix my car. The immediate area around Lilia, including the building that houses Lilia, was like one giant Auto Shop extravaganza. Since I grew up poor, my first cars used to break often, and so were my visits to North Williamsburg. Sometimes I would even need a little push on the BQE to make it to my destination. Oh the good ol’ days. There was no other reason to go to the area until we discovered Sea, the cheap, clubby Thai temple that is still going strong today. My Thai preferences shifted as I got older, but Sea was the place where we could have fun as a group, and still save for those car mechanics.
Fast forward to 2016, my auto shop is now a bank, and the area overall has clearly, how do you say, gentrified? (a little Top Secret humor). Gentrification, a term every New Yorker learns at some point. Like when you discover the last remaining $1 dumplings place in your neighborhood has closed, or when grandpa announces during Thanksgiving dinner that he can no longer receive happy ending at his salon. Now we travel to North Williamsburg as a family for pizza, Maine seafood, and Cacio e Pepe renditions that puts some of the neighboring borough great Cacios to shame.
Lilia delivered the type of meal that almost makes you want to move to Williamsburg (Parking, and lack of reliable auto shops stand in the way). Although my team of critics and I had to wait a month to score a table (damn you Hot Lists and all your informative wisdom), the initial feeling upon enetering is that of a comfortable neighborhood spot where you just want to hang on a Sunday night. Roomy, bright, high beam ceilings, and did I mention roomy? A luxury these days in North Brooklyn and Manhattan. Even when you consider the number of employees almost match the number of diners, no one is on top of you, and the space makes you want to get up and run around, with scissors, naked (I’m seeing someone about that)
The menu reads like a beautiful mashup of Italian and Dr. Seuss. There was pasta, meat, veggies, little fish, big fish. Or perhaps the ultra talented Missy Robbins is a PJ Harvey fan (She wasnt there to ask). The punchy Cacio e Pepe Fritelle, from the cocktail snack section, is a must get starter. Little fried balls of awesomeness. The Bagna Cauda, a Piedmont specialty of veggies you dip in an anchovy garlic sauce was like the Best of Union Square Market album. I would order this just for Robbins’ ability to pick the finest of the bunch. Then there was this perfectly cooked Cauliflower with hints of Spicy Soppressata, Sicilian Pesto. If there are trends all over town these days, Cauliflower and Cacio e Pepe are right up there.
The pastas here are so good, that by the end of the meal you find yourself playing “lets rank the pastas” with your neighbors. I won! The yellowest, longest, most beautiful, straight from an orthopedic pillow infomercial, Agnolotti, filled with Sheeps Milk cheese, and finished with butter, saffron, honey, and much needed acid from dried tomato that completes the dish. At most places this would be #1. Here its #3 from the three we tried. The ‘imperfect’ Malfadini looked and tasted pretty perfect to me. Take your average Cacio e Pepe, change the pasta to something with more texture, sharper cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano, and pink peppercorns, and you essentially got Cacio e Pepe on crack cocaine. And then comes the tomato-less Pappardelle with veal and porcini ragu. Quite a contrast and an upgrade over other such ragus all over town, one of which by Via Carota I’ve had days earlier. What a difference. Its all about the slow braised meat and its juices, reminiscent of the Ostera Morini meatless Stracci with mushrooms.
Normally after a start like this, secondis rarely wow. They wowed here, but not without some quibbling. A veal steak, far from your average veal, was cooked to pink perfection with plenty of flavor to boot from the Serrano peppers, herbs, lime and the rest of it. The size was certainly there, but what was missing considering the previous dishes, and the price (almost $30, forget exactly) was at least one more vegetable. The magnificent Black Bass with Salsa Verde, on the other hand, came on top a roasted potato, but was missing more bass. Minor quibbles when considering the entire meal.
Missy Robbins was Barack Obama’s favorite chef in Chicago before he became president. With a name like that its surprising to learn that Lilia is her first owned restaurant. While I need another visit or two to make it official, Lilia is a top 3 Italian, and a shoe in for the Z-List. Mazal Tov 😉
567 Union Ave, Brooklyn
Recommended Dishes: Fritelle, Bagna Cauda, All pastas, Veal, Bass