Lilia is Missy Robbins’ highly acclaimed restaurant. It’s in demand, well regarded, and if you want reservations for a Friday or Saturday night, you will need to either book exactly one month before the date you want (when advance reservations open up) or call incessantly, hoping for a very unlikely last minute cancellation.
The space is rustic and large as the restaurant is housed in an old warehouse. It is only open for dinner because everything is made in house during the day. The wait staff is trained very well, knowledgeable about the ingredients and technique used to make the dishes, experienced enough to have opinions, and very willing to provide both enthusiastic and impeccable service.
Though we had reservations, we still waited about fifteen minutes for a table. The place is at full capacity and of course diners cannot be fully controlled with respect to their arrival and departure times. Our server was incredibly friendly and genuinely wanted us and all of his other customers to have a good experience. He answered questions articulately, shared his own preferences when asked, and explained certain policies. For instance, in the Mafaldini, a dish for which they are known, the cheese cannot be omitted as the chef feels it is an integral and absolutely necessary part of the experience.
He also talked through the specials for the day, one of which was a $115 ribeye for 2 that they smoke in house. It was surprising to me that someone would dine at a restaurant known for its amazing pasta and regional Italian specialties only to order a steak. When I inquired about this, the server said it was because their steak was not only delicious, but also very competitively priced. Fair enough. I’ve been known to go to restaurants and order the polar opposite of what they are known for. You want what you want!
Anyway, we naturally stuck to pasta because that’s what we’d come for. Though each pasta dish is enough to serve one, we decided to order a third dish because, well, why not? There are too many things that needed trying and who ever complained of too much food? We settled upon Lilia’s claims to fame:
The Agnolotti filled with sheep’s milk cheese, and cooked with saffron, dried tomato, and honey. The aforementioned Mafaldini, with pink peppercorn and the unomittable parmigiano reggiano. And the Rigatoni Diavola, with San Marzano tomatoes (shout out to Neapolitan pizzas everywhere!), chilies, oregano, and pecorino.
The Agnolotti is a must try. You can’t find a dish quite like this anywhere. The honey is very subtle, but adds a tiny hint of sweetness to the butter sauce. The saffron is hardly overpowering, adding just a touch of complexity to the sauce. The cheese is soft, smooth, and a bit tangy. The dish is pillowy deliciousness.
The Mafaldini is a popular choice and is Lilia’s take on the traditional cacio e pepe. Instead of the traditional black pepper, they use a pink peppercorn. The butter and cheese are actually very light and the texture of the Mafaldini is perfectly al dente. Not to mention it’s a unique and whimsically shaped pasta. But the two downfalls of this dish to me are the fact that it is simultaneously too salty and a bit bland. I’m not sure if the saltiness came from the cheese or added salt, but it wasn’t balanced with enough other flavor. The cheese and butter flavor just didn’t come through as you would expect them to. On the bright side, great texture and the pink peppercorn is a nice change of pace.
The Rigatoni Diavola really is diavola! It is one of the spicier pasta dishes I’ve ever had. I could imagine a lot of people being turned off by that, but I thought it was a fantastic change of pace. If you don’t want something spicy, don’t order it. But if you do, this is a winner. Also, rigatoni is a pasta that is rarely made in house, so the fact that they make theirs is impressive. And the tomato sauce is a rich, thick, hearty sauce that coats the rigatoni and finds its way into all the nooks and crannies of the pasta such that each piece of rigatoni is amply coated. It’s such a comforting dish with a great flavor. Nothing very unique since it’s essentially a pasta with tomato sauce (albeit spicy), but it’s done quite well.
It’s undeniable that Lilia serves high quality, homemade, thoughtful food in a bustling, comfortable environment and provides great service. It’s very well regarded and highly praised, for good reason. But I think ultimately it’s still over-hyped. Its reputation and acclaim are distinctly above other restaurants that in all reality are of the same caliber, making it a slightly disappointing experience instead of an unexpectedly surprising experience. All in all, I do definitely recommend Lilia, but only with the understanding that you’ll be dining at a great restaurant and not necessarily a restaurant that should merit a reservation one month in advance.