Chef Craig Richards describes the food at his new Midtown restaurant, Lyla Lila, as “Italian in spirit and technique,” but with an “expanded pantry” that also features many Georgia grown ingredients. The menu spotlights flavors and dishes found throughout Italy and southern Spain, and offers seven pastas and risottos.
Pasta is a craft Richards has been working to master for over 15 years. His experience includes stints with Italian chef Lidia Bastianich at her Kansas City and Pittsburgh restaurants and leading the kitchens at Virginia-Highland trattoria La Tavola and Ford Fry’s Italian restaurant St. Cecilia in Buckhead.
Richards began his cooking career with Bastianich at her namesake restaurant, Lidia’s, in Kansas City. He credits a former roommate for landing him his first full-time cooking job, and for unwittingly introducing him to the cuisine that would later define him as a chef.
“My roommate at the time was cooking at the restaurant, and I was an editor for a publishing company in town and cooking at night,” says Richards. “I was looking to make cooking a full time career and to learn a classic cuisine like Italian. My roommate encouraged me to apply as a line cook at Lidia’s, and I fell in love with cooking Italian food.”
According to Richards, traveling to Italy to work in restaurants throughout the country as well as the mentorship he received from Bastianich in her kitchens opened his eyes to the breadth and regionality of Italian food. It’s a cuisine he describes as “honest.”
With the support of his Lyla Lila partner, Billy Streck, Richards says he’s finally dialed in the finesse of the pastas he once created for seafood-driven St. Cecilia, while using more meat and a variety of ingredients as he had done with the rustic Italian dishes for La Tavola. These are the dishes which now define the Italian spirit behind Lyla Lila.
“This restaurant is a personal expression of me and who I am as a chef — the way it looks, the way it feels. I’m getting to present my food to Atlanta,” Richards says of opening his dream restaurant. “Billy has really supported my vision and supported me. I couldn’t be happier.”
Learn why Richards considers these five dishes at Lyla Lila to be his current favorites.
Richards believes the crudités with olive aioli showcases the beauty and flavor of seasonal vegetables. The dish is meant to wake the palate before the meal begins. “Using Castelvetrano olives for the aioli works for these vegetables. These are Sicilian olives that are really creamy and kind of nutty,” he explains.
The olives are pureed in some of their own brine with olive oil, then folded into the aioli. The smoked sumac used to season the crudités nods to the expanded Italian pantry at Lyla Lila. While native to the Middle East, sumac also grows wild in Georgia. Richards loves the bright lemony flavor of the herb, and smoking it only enhances that flavor.
Cold smoked scallops
The cold smoked scallops come served with a green harissa, a smoky and slightly spicy north African hot chile paste. Richards adds a few dollops of apple cider aioli to bump up the sugar and to bring some fat to the scallops. He finishes them with olive oil and flaky sea salt. The bowl is then filled with smoke, covered, and presented to the table. “I love how smoke brings out the natural sweetness and brininess of scallops.” The scallops come with Sardinian crackers dressed with fresh thyme and chile flakes.
Chicken liver and sweet potato ravioli
The ravioli doppio, or double ravioli, contains two fillings: sweet potatoes and chicken liver. “I wanted to play off the natural sugars in chicken liver, so I went with local sweet potatoes, which are in season right now around the South.”
Once filled, each ravioli is folded over on itself, allowing for both the chicken liver and sweet potatoes to be consumed in one bite. The raviolis sit atop a simple sauce of pasta water and butter. “The emphasis,” Richards says, “should always be on the pasta, not the sauce.” The dish is then garnished with tarragon and fried pine nuts.
Spaghetti and prawns with pork ragu and bottarga
Richards describes the spaghetti and prawns as exploring the “Spanish side of mixing pork and shellfish, but presented in an Italian way.”
Pork ribs used to create the sauce are braised in what Richards refers to as the “Sicilian way” with chile flakes, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and white wine. The braise gets pulled apart and cooked back down in its own sauce. The head-on prawns top the spaghetti, which is lightly dressed in the braised pork sauce. Borttaga (Sardinian cured fish roe) adds extra umami to the dish, and a kick of heat comes from Calabrian chiles.
Wood grilled fish
Gulf snapper is the fish of the moment on the menu. Richards removes the head and scores the fish before it’s placed on the wood grill. The fish is then brushed with a thinly puréed romesco sauce to caramelize the skin. It comes served with a side of roasted broccolini cooked in an Italian fish sauce along with charred lemon juice and olive oil.
Lyla Lila is open Sunday - Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Lunch and brunch begin in 2020.
Public transportation and parking information: Located three blocks northeast of the North Avenue MARTA station and on MARTA bus route #40, which stops at Peachtree and 3rd streets. Valet parking available. Paid public lots available. Towing and booting heavily enforced without payment.
693 Peachtree Street Northeast, Atlanta. lylalilaatl.com.