Life’s best meals come when you sit around a table with your family or friends. When Chef David Viana and Neilly Robinson set out to open their third restaurant—and second in one year—they aimed to capture that exact feeling. The feeling of love and comfort you get from a home-cooked meal. At Lita in Aberdeen Township, NJ—which officially opened on April 26—Viana is channeling his Iberian roots to put forth a dazzling menu complete with Portuguese and Spanish classics reminiscent of his childhood. Large-format paella, innovative cocktails and cod fritters are just the start of what makes Lita one of New Jersey’s most anticipated restaurant openings of 2023.
“There’s a huge cultural aspect. A nostalgia aspect. A pride aspect,” Viana told me in the naturally-lit dining room of Lita, which features a completely open kitchen in the rear and a u-shaped bar off to the side.
As a first-generation Portuguese American, Viana has always found ways to sneak in flavors from the Iberian Peninsula into his dishes—particularly at Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge and Heirloom at the St. Laurent in Asbury Park. At Lita, those flavors and techniques shine front and center—something Viana has dreamt of his entire career.
For a chef with quite the resume—complete with a James Beard nomination and “Top Chef” appearance—the prowess displayed in his dishes comes from a pure, child-like joy surrounding food that stems from his Mother and Grandmother. “The nostalgia of food [for me] comes from eating at my Grandmother’s,” Viana told me, recounting Sunday family dinners, “the romanticism of food comes from that, too.” It’s for that reason that his mother is the namesake for Lita. Without her, the restaurant wouldn’t exist, and Viana might not be working in the restaurant industry at all.
So, when Robinson and Viana sought to open Lita, they knew that in order to be a proper homage to the Iberian Peninsula, attention to detail was necessary. As any fans of the prior spots will know, for Robinson, that is no issue at all. The renowned restaurateur has long been recognized for her eye for aesthetics. When dining at any of the pair’s three restaurants, the atmosphere is equally as remarkable as the food. Much of Lita’s design—including the open kitchen and chef’s counter—was modeled after Heirloom Kitchen.
Each piece of cutlery and linen has been carefully curated to match Lita’s ambiance—which is beckoning and many-hued. Sausages and vegetables hang above the flames of an open hearth for all eyes to see. In front of it, chefs and cooks work in plain sight—a necessary thread of Lita’s fabric. Portuguese cookbooks and artwork dot the wooden shelves and earth-toned marble tops the tables and bar.
The logo and artwork boast a vibrant color palette in contrast. Robinson went on to explain the backstory behind Lita’s branding, which is bright, colorful and tells the story of Viana’s childhood and family. “I found the artist through a wine label,” Robinson explained, pointing to a bottle of Paraiso Natural from Minho, Portugal. “I loved the wine already and then I fell in love with the artwork.” That’s when Robinson decided to hit up Brooklyn-based artist and mastermind behind the Paraiso label, Christina Zimpel.
Viana and Robinson compiled a stack of photos from Viana’s childhood as well as of his parents’ hometowns for Zimpel to work off of. Zimpel’s work is bright and lively, so it was the perfect match for Lita’s style. Furthermore, when peeling back the layers, it tells a stripped-down story of how Lita came to be.
Lita’s atmosphere goes well beyond what the naked eye is capable of seeing. Viana aimed to create a restaurant that championed worker’s rights, uplifting his employees through a work environment that is not only moral, but fun to be a part of. For a chef who has seen it all in the kitchen, he felt a workspace that allowed for variety and a living wage was not just enticing—but overtly necessary.
Beyond Viana and Robinson is a team of talented individuals. In the kitchen, Chef de Cuisine Brian Lopes and Sous Chef Mike Pineiro help to run the show, while the bar program is fronted by liquid genius Ricardo Rodriguez.
But it is the format of Lita’s front and back-of-house makeup that is truly special. Helmed by Director of Operations Danny McGill, Lita’s mechanism is based upon a structure of 10 cooks and servers who rotate weekly. Yes, you heard that right. Lita features a revolutionary system that cross-trains cooks to be servers as well. Each week, five members of the team work in the kitchen, while the other five serve tables. The following week, they switch. Tips are shared amongst the 10 workers each night. This is done for a few reasons. First and foremost, by rotating each week, the restaurant remains fresh and exciting, breaking the monotony that is prevalent in the industry.
The modern system also allows for a better diner experience. Each server is an expert in the food because they are fully trained in cooking it. Nothing a server says about a dish is hearsay or an assumption, rather, an objective fact. How often have you asked a server a question only to be met with: Let me go ask the kitchen? At Lita, this is a non-factor. By doing both jobs, Viana feels the staff will be able to grow in the field and become better cooks and servers. “They’re all so engaged and keen to learn,” Viana said. “ It’s important for them to be on the customer side showing that off.”
The true inspiration for the cycled system at Lita comes from a dedication to making restaurants more just places to work in. “We all have this idea of what it’s like to be a chef. The fact that chefs are working so hard and earning so little, people think it’s just the way it has to be,” Viana said. That sentiment is true. As a young line cook myself, I earned minimum wage and often clocked beyond 60 hours a week. The pay wasn’t enough to live, and the long hours stripped me of any opportunity for leisure or relaxation. I didn’t think it was unfair or cruel, but instead, just how it was. That lifestyle has become almost synonymous with cooking, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Chefs like Dave Viana are working to change that.
The tip sharing at Lita takes this a step further by allowing cooks to make more money. In many American restaurants, there is a stark contrast between the take-home pay of servers and cooks, with servers often bringing home close to twice as much as their cooking counterparts in high-end restaurants—despite working fewer hours. With each server also being a cook, it removes any animosity that might come from the tip pooling. Viana feels that by implementing this unique structure, he can create a place that people will enjoy coming to work for and inspire other chefs to do the same in the process. “I’m excited to come out with something that’s different and important,” Viana proudly stated.
The momentum doesn’t stop there, the food and drinks at Lita reflect the positive work environment, each competing with the best in the state.
Beverage Director Ricardo Rodriguez built a drink list that is diverse, and teeming with a variety of flavors from the Iberian Peninsula. In Lita’s mule, the usual suspects—vodka, lime and ginger beer—are present, but with the addition of a lacto-fermented honey, laced with turmeric. Think bright yellow over pebble ice topped with a few healthy dashes of Peychaud’s bitters and a sprig of fresh mint. It is smooth, acidic and backed up by a bite. Beyond flavor, the fermented honey provides a velvet-like texture that lingers on the palate.
Two other classic cocktails receive an Iberian makeover at Lita. The old fashioned features Henry McKenna bottled-in-bond bourbon that is “washed” with brown butter. A process that improves both flavor and texture of spirits. The fat-washed whisky is stirred with palm sugar and Angostura bitters. I am usually not a fan of the old fashioned, but Lita’s is remarkably smoother and more interesting than your average take on the classic.
The boulevardier is also fat-washed, but this time with coconut oil. Rye whisky, Punt e Mes vermouth and Carpano Bitter—a red liqueur akin to Campari—are stirred and poured over a large cube of ice with an orange wedge. The use of Carpano instead of Campari provides a more balanced bitter element and the coconut oil infusion adds body and depth to an already convoluted cocktail. You are left with a drink that is perfect to start a meal.
In addition to cocktails is a 100 percent Iberian wine list featuring an array of natural and biodynamic wines from Portugal and Spain. The aforementioned Paraiso Natural is available, along with a long list of wines utilizing sustainable practices that Viana and Robinson sampled throughout trips to the Iberian Peninsula.
When it comes to suds, Lita offers the Portuguese Super Bock in bottles as well as several beers on tap from their neighbor, Alternate Endings Brewery, including a custom brew for Lita’s opening: Bomba. The lager is brewed with saffron from Valencia and bomba rice—the same rice used in paella.
In the month following the opening, Rodriguez and the team will unveil a cocktail bar, separate from the restaurant but within the same space. La Otra will feature a list of globally-inspired drinks, extending beyond the parameters of the Iberian Peninsula. The innovative cocktail lab can be a place to grab a drink while you wait for your table, or an entirely separate experience altogether.
If you’ve had Viana’s food before, then I don’t have to tell you that Lita’s menu is exceptional. Viana explained that in early 2020 he had more time to cook for his family and friends. He fell back in love with the cooking of his youth because of it and began to draw inspiration from his childhood meals. Lita’s menu is well-versed in Iberian flavors and was created using nostalgia as the guiding factor.
For Viana, though, it is about much more than just great food. It is about family and friends gathering around a table and eating food that will bring them together. “Honest communication happens when you sit around a table,” Viana said. This is an important idea to keep in mind when dining at Lita.
To start, you’ll find an array of Iberian classics. Patatas bravas, a Portuguese collard green and chorizo stew known as caldo verde, an elevated version of the garlic shrimp found all over the Ironbound neighborhood in Newark and more make up the appetizer portion, labeled “essenciales,” or “essentials.”
The bolos de bacalhau brings the best of Iberian comfort food to New Jersey. The salt cod croquettes are lightly fried and best eaten with a generous squeeze of lemon on top. The fritters are made by frying a mixture of potato, aromatics and salt cod. For me, a seafood fritter is an ideal way to start a meal and at Lita, that remains true.
What will no doubt bring Lita the acclaim it deserves is the piri piri chicken. Piri piri is a food eaten all over Portugal and the world that has roots in Africa. In Mozambique, the piri piri chili has been grown for hundreds of years, and when Portugal colonized the South African country during the 16th Century, the technique of using this chili as a marinade for meat was discovered.
In Portugal, chickens are marinated with piri piri chili, garlic, acid and other spices before being grilled over charcoal. Viana uses his Uncle’s recipe, which features an oil-based marinade that’s flavored with garlic and white vinegar in addition to the African chilis. Viana went on to explain that the dish goes well beyond the flavors. Piri Piri chicken requires the heat from live coals to be authentic and for Viana, if there wasn’t a real hearth grill at Lita, then the beloved chicken wasn’t going to happen.
Viana spent time in Portugal researching this dish specifically. Viana noted that when cooking over fire, it is important that you cook over coals instead of ignited wood—something that is crucial to maintaining a desired flavor. Wood often burns too high and singes food, imparting a bitter taste. So, at Lita a fire is started on wood in the morning, then raked down to coals. The heat is then maintained by the addition of binchōtan charcoal throughout the day. These real, coal grills are common throughout the Iberian Peninsula but not so much here in the States. So, Viana and Robinson sought to have one built specifically for Lita.
While eating at Rose Mary in Chicago, the duo fell in love with the hearth used by Chef Joe Flamm for his rustic, Italian-inspired fare. Viana simply asked Flamm about it and Flamm was more than happy to give every detail of the grill’s specifications. From there, Viana had an almost identical version built for Lita’s opening. The grill became the centerpiece around which much of the menu revolves around.
For the piri piri chicken, this means real charcoal flavor permeates throughout the entire half chicken. His Uncle’s recipe is slightly spicy, and flavors each crevice of the meat. Additionally, the chicken remains incredibly juicy, with no pockets of dry, under-seasoned meat to ruin the experience. It is served alongside french fries, which I’d be remiss not to praise. They are simple, well-seasoned and crispy fries—which is exactly what they should always be. Nothing more and certainly nothing less. It sounds ridiculous, but so many restaurants nowadays get french fries completely wrong. Thankfully, at Lita, that is not the case.
If anything, paella is a must. This isn’t a suggestion, it’s an order. Viana shows off three versions of Paella at Lita—each one cooked on the hearth just the way it’s done in Spain. In the mariscos paella, bomba rice, saffron, yellow beans, head-on shrimp from Portugal and Point Pleasant scallops come together in this large format entree for two. The rice is coated with saffron and cooked in seafood stock over the fire.
As the dish comes together, pieces are added at different times depending on the cook time. It is a labor of love and one that takes quite a lot of skill to pull off during a busy service. Once complete, the paella is topped with the shrimp, seared scallops and a fava bean salsa verde. The underside of the rice is the star of the show, though. It crisps up in the carbon steel pans as the rest of the dish gently cooks. When done, crispy, golden brown rice can be scraped up from the bottom and eaten. This is known as socarrat in Spanish and it is a quintessential component of paella. Without it, it’s not paella at all.
Lita’s paella leaves nothing to be desired. The shrimp and scallops are perfectly cooked and seasoned, while the socarrat is undeniably crisp. The shrimp are to be peeled and eaten, sucking the heads clean of any flavor. It is a paella that compares to the ones I have had in Spain and Viana’s commitment to making it the right way is the reason for it. No matter who you are, Viana makes you feel like a part of his family when he makes you paella—and that’s exactly the way it should be.
Chef David Viana and Neilly Robinson could have done anything with their third restaurant and garnered praise. They could have kept the exact Heirloom Kitchen format that is proven to work and rode off into the sunset, but instead, they took on an involuted venture.
Their dedication to creating a benevolent work environment is inspiring. Many may scoff at the restaurant’s structure, but for those who have worked in the industry before, it is impossible to deny that Lita represents a refreshing change to the industry. A change that is composed of equity and variety.
Lita is an extraordinary space. Beyond the taupe-colored tiles on the walls and the wood-finished trim and detailing is a story of a Portuguese American chef doing what he loves. As you traverse the menu trying different bites of food, Viana’s journey and career unfold before you. This is a story that includes Michelin-starred kitchens, television shows and critical acclaim, but before it, came a meal around his Grandmother’s table. For Viana, it is important to convey that to guests, because without it, none of the other achievements would be a factor. At Lita, Chef David Viana takes you in as his own to bring you one of New Jersey’s most profound dining experiences.
About the Author/s
Peter Candia is the Food + Drink Editor at New Jersey Digest. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Peter found a passion for writing midway through school and never looked back. He is a former line cook, server and bartender at top-rated restaurants in the tri-state area. In addition to food, Peter enjoys politics, music, sports and anything New Jersey.