the underground gourmet

Roman Soul in Brownstone Brooklyn

The food is good at Lillo Cucina Italiana, but the main attraction is Lillo himself.

The trattoria cooking at Lillo is resolutely uninterpreted, unembellished, and unmodernized. Photo: Louise Palmberg
The trattoria cooking at Lillo is resolutely uninterpreted, unembellished, and unmodernized. Photo: Louise Palmberg

Sometime last fall, with not a scintilla of fanfare, Lillo Cucina Italiana opened just south of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill.
What seemed at first to be a nondescript coffee shop replacing another nondescript coffee shop was not exactly a stop-the-presses culinary event, even in this coffee-shop-besotted era. No releases were issued over the digital transom. No Yelp Elite free-for-alls were scheduled. No influencers were summoned.

Instead, owner Giampietro “Lillo” Remia started quietly making the cornetti, baba, and wine biscuits he used to sell at the bakery he once ran in Rome, where he grew up, as well as a selection of super-simple Italian panini named, as Italian sandwich-makers often do, after favorite movies like La Grande Bellezza and Amarcord. The coffee? Unfashionably Italian, served in branded Miscela d’Oro china. Gradually, the locals found him, and as his clientele grew, so did his menu, to the point that the six-table coffee shop became a bona fide trattoria, albeit one without the amenities usually associated with the genre (there is no liquor license and no BYO policy, which might be for the best as there is also no public bathroom).

The locals have discovered Lillo Cucina Italiana, but the restaurant and its 17-seat dining room remains under the radar. Photo: Jemma Hinkly/New York Magazine

But in this 17-seat space, from behind a counter stocked with Remia’s homey pasticceria comes a cavalcade of hearty pastas, rustic vegetables, and straightforward entrées as true to Italy as Remia’s accent. The dishes bear classic names, and the preparations are resolutely uninterpreted, unembellished, and unmodernized. Gnocchi are chewy-soft potato pillows napped with tomato or cream sauce and sometimes tinged pink from beets in the dough, which is as radical as Lillo gets. From his hometown, there is cacio e pepe, about as good as any rendition you’d find in fancier places across the river. There is spaghetti with meat sauce, and lasagna alla Bolognese, and housemade fettuccine variously adorned with rich, creamy sauces and salutary bites of mushroom or zucchini. (Truth be told, Lillo’s pastas tend to the rich and the saucy, which is either praise or criticism, depending on your point of view.)

A glance at the specials, scribbled on a flattened brown-paper shopping bag tacked on the wall near the counter, might reveal a chickpea-and-shellfish soup or a side of beet greens. But in general, this food is nothing if not familiar to anyone who’s dined out in New York over the past, oh, let’s say, 35 years.

Giampietro “Lillo” Remia is one of those old-fashioned chef-proprietors who believe a chef-proprietor should actually be present at his restaurant. Photo: Louise Palmberg

So even though a side dish as mundane-sounding as sautéed cabbage alla Lillo could actually convert a protest mob of cabbage skeptics, and the chicken Milanese is textbook crisp, and the coffee-gelato affogato might be the last word on the subject of espresso dumped over ice cream, you can’t say that Lillo’s success is entirely attributable to his kitchen. No. The main attraction at Lillo Cucina Italiana is Lillo himself. At six-foot-four and typically sporting a kitchen apron, colorful bandanna looped around a shock of black hair, extra-large polo shirt, comfortable black shoes the size of violin cases, and a pair of no-holds-barred muttonchops, he’s hard to miss. His overall mien is like a cross between a small grizzly bear and a culinarily inclined Hells Angel.

Clockwise from top: artichokes; cabbage; pastas (cacio e pepe and rigatoni alla boscaiola). Louise Palmberg.
Clockwise from top: artichokes; cabbage; pastas (cacio e pepe and rigatoni alla boscaiola). Louise Palmberg.

Lillo, you soon discover, is one of those sweet-natured old-fashioned chef-proprietors who believe a chef-proprietor should actually be present at his restaurant. Therefore, he’s not only familiar with his kitchen and the operation of its equipment but he greets customers at the door, he drapes their table with one of his charmingly mismatched tablecloths with a practiced flourish, he takes their orders, he debates with them the finer points of Italian versus American salami, he makes goofy faces at the babies they hold on their laps, he buses their tables, and he bids them a hearty “Ciao!” on their way out. From pulling espresso and making bomboloni in the morning to clearing the last plate of rigatoni alla gricia at night, he’s there. In restaurant-world-speak, he is the front-of-the-house and he is the back-of-the-house.

Clockwise from top: chicken Milanese; gnocchi with tomato sauce; meatballs. Louise Palmberg.
Clockwise from top: chicken Milanese; gnocchi with tomato sauce; meatballs. Louise Palmberg.

Further, Lillo seems to actually like his customers, and they like him back. Regulars are extended family here. “How’s your son?” “How’s your wife?” they inquire, and “How are your feet?” when referring to the fact that Lillo pays the price of a man who makes his living standing all day. As evidence of their devotion, among the assorted knickknacks on the plain white walls are testimonials: a portrait in pencil of Lillo drawn by a customer, a photo of a group of well-fed revelers, a thank-you card open to the message “You Make People Happy.”

Yet in spite of its neighborhood-gem status, Lillo Cucina Italiana is one of those spots that remain curiously under the radar, and Lillo regulars are perfectly happy to keep it that way lest they find themselves unable to score a table at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night. It’s not only the quality and affordability of the food that fills the seats, or the delicious coffee and pastries, but the vibe of the place that attracts fans willing to overlook minor annoyances like the lack of air conditioning in a heat wave, the old-world pace that comes from a constitutional inability to resist congenial banter, and the absence of wine. After all, quick service, climate control, and Chianti are easy to find in these parts. Lillo is not.

Clockwise from left: coffee affogato; crostatine; pastiera. Louise Palmberg.
Clockwise from left: coffee affogato; crostatine; pastiera. Louise Palmberg.
Rating: 3 stars

Lillo Cucina Italiana
331 Henry St., nr. Pacific St., Cobble Hill; 347-763-0899; lillobrooklyn.com

Open: Tuesday through Sunday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Prices: $10 to $23; cash only.
Ideal Meal: Artichokes or cabbage alla Lillo, spaghetti cacio e pepe or rigatoni alla boscaiola, chicken Milanese, affogato.
Note: If you desperately need a drink and a bathroom break, go across the street to Long Island Bar or next door to Henry Public.
Scratchpad: One star for the solid, satisfying trattoria cooking, one for Lillo’s old-world hospitality, and one more for his coffee affogato.

*This article appears in the August 20, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Roman Soul in Brownstone Brooklyn