Dirty Work: Picking Fresh Herbs for Pasta with Missy Robbins of Lilia
Missy Robbins' cooking proves that less is more—especially when it comes to a simple pasta dish with fresh herbs, lemon, and oysters.
Photos by Shay Harrington
Welcome back to Dirty Work, our series of dispatches from the MUNCHIES Garden. We're inviting chefs, bartenders, and personalities in the world of food and drink to explore our edible playground and make whatever the hell inspires them with our rooftop produce. The results: MUNCHIES Garden recipes for you, dear reader. This time, we kick it with Missy Robbins of Brooklyn's insanely popular Italian eatery Lilia, who teaches us that all you need for a perfect plate of pasta is the right herbs and a little know-how.
"This is so fun. I just harvested garlic. Get a shot of me and my garlic."
Missy Robbins is the chef, owner, and mastermind behind Lilia—an Italian restaurant in Williamsburg, opened in January, that is somehow both impossible-to-get-into and totally neighborhood-centric, an immaculate, airy, high-ceilinged palace of pasta opened in a former auto body shop. She's known for her disciplined work ethic and penchant for perfectionism, but right now, she's just a person who is happy to be zipping around a garden, grabbing whatever catches her eye.
Especially cardoons. "I'll take all of your cardoons. They're impossible to find," she says gleefully, cutting stalks of the thistle-like plants.
The spring onions are also a hit, as is the fennel. But that garlic seems to be her favorite garden treasure. "Our pasta on the menu right now is spaghetti with garlic scapes, spring garlic, and garlic cloves, all caramelized really slowly, then some garlic slices sautéed really quickly, with lemon…. It was one of those dishes that took a while to nail, but it's finally perfect," she smiles. Those indifferent or averse to garlic need not apply.
The garlic bulb is so fresh that after being cleaned, it doesn't even have any thin, flaky skin over its cloves yet. Unsurprisingly, Missy will make a pasta today, too, and you bet that there will be garlic in it.
"This garlic is just… pristine," she muses. "You don't have to peel this. It's so cool."
Coolness is understated, as is Missy's cooking. Fresh pasta and clams are the only thing she brought to the kitchen today, adhering to her guiding principle that simplicity is key. Herbs (heaps of them) and lemon are all she'll need to complete her dish.
"The plants, olive oil, garlic—I keep it simple. I need nothing, I'm a very simple, simple woman. It's just gonna be a really vibrant bowl [of pasta]," she says, before asking for more lemons. The clams will add a bit of brine; chili flakes will imbue subtle heat. But the other ingredients work their magic simply by being whirled around in some olive oil and butter, and then combined.
Missy remarks that she uses less fats than many other chefs, and only where most needed. She describes one of the newer dishes at Lilia thusly: "We just put this lobster dish on. It's half a lobster, we par cook it a little, then it goes on the grill for a minute. Then we add garlic butter and olive oil, and this lemon oil, and a shit ton of herbs and fennel pollen. It's so good, and so simple."
Pro tip: Never underestimate the power of a shit ton of herbs. Fennel fronds, dill, and mustard flowers are all making their way into the garlicky clam pasta as we speak.
It's the easy elegance of Missy's cooking that has Lilia's reservation list permanently booked, and everyone from to neighborhood walk-ins crushing on the whole menu, from the warm bagna cauda to the agnolotti with saffron and honey.
"I've been doing this a really long time. If it didn't take off, I'd be in a lot of trouble," she shrugs, in regards to the massive popularity of her restaurant. "The neighborhood is really embracing it. When I started A Voce it was a very important thing, I was making a name for myself. And now it's about having a busy restaurant that people are really happy with."
Fans even include Fuck, That's Delicious host Action Bronson. "Action Bronson comes when he's in town, like once a week," Missy grins. "I think he eats a lot of [our] cookies. He's so sweet."
For Robbins, it's all about "removing the bullshit." That means extraneous ingredients, unnecessarily complicated techniques, and even distractions in the kitchen. "I work in silence," she says flatly when I offer to put on some music while she cooks.
But before we know it, the dish is ready anyhow, a tangled heap of toothsome al dente noodles loaded with bright flavor and no unnecessary frills.
Think of it as Occam's Razor applied to Italian food. The simplest answer is often the best one (and garlic is always the answer.)