Restaurant Review

Lita, a Buzzy New Restaurant in Aberdeen, Deserves Every Recent Accolade

David Viana's latest spot, serving creative and delicious Iberian cuisine, is a James Beard Award semifinalist for the best new restaurant in the country.

Feijoada de pato, an elevated traditional bean stew, at Lita in Aberdeen
Feijoada de pato, an elevated traditional bean stew, at Lita in Aberdeen. Photo: James Worrell

With its sophisticated interpretation of Iberian cuisine, Lita enlivens classic dishes. It is tempting to say that this acclaimed dining destination in Aberdeen is not your mother’s Portuguese restaurant—except that it kind of is.

Executive chef David Viana—who co-owns Lita with Neilly Robinson, managing director, and Danny McGill, director of operations and hospitality—named the restaurant after his mother, Rosa “Lita” Viana, who lives in Monmouth County. His recipes owe much to afternoons spent with his maternal grandmother, the late Isaura Sequeira, in her fragrant kitchen in the Little Lisboa neighborhood of Newark, where Viana grew up. If you order the camarão alhinho—and you should—you can consider the garlicky, succulent Portuguese shrimp a descendant of something Isaura’s generation enjoyed.

Shrimp with garlic at Lita in Aberdeen

Camarão alhinho (shrimp with garlic). Photo: James Worrell

“My grandmother made dishes that were the heart and soul of what the people of Newark missed when they left Portugal,” Viana says. “A few generations later, it kind of became paint-by-numbers in a lot of Portuguese restaurants. Big portions, not a lot of flavor, not an emphasis on ingredients or authentic spices.”

When you dine at Lita, you experience something similar to young Viana’s visits to his avó (grandmother). You can watch the chefs at work in the open kitchen with its hearth oven. The dining area is designed in neutral gold and black, with what Robinson describes as a “feminine twist, with pinkish-orange marble to soften the space, since it’s named after David’s mother.”

The dining room at Lita in Aberdeen

A busy night in the dining room. Photo: James Worrell

If you have a question along the way, ask any of the servers; they are all chefs. Lita’s team structure cross-trains the staff, who alternate between waiting tables and cooking. Tips are shared equally between front-of-house and back-of-house workers, and all non-management employees start at the same base salary. The policy aims to establish equity in an industry that has long neglected back-of-house staff. The bonus for customers? Well-rested chefs and knowledgeable, enthusiastic waiters, who can describe in detail every ingredient and technique involved with a dish, and who will tell you their particular favorites on the menu.

Persimmon pudding with buttermilk and mandarin semifredo at Lita in Aberdeen

Pudim de caqui (persimmon pudding with buttermilk and mandarin semifredo). Photo: James Worrell

Innovation and thoughtfulness are part and parcel of every project dreamed up by Viana and Robinson. Lita is their third joint venture. In 2016, Viana joined the team at Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge, founded by Robinson. In the summer of 2022, Viana and Robinson opened Heirloom at the St. Laurent in Asbury Park. Viana was nominated for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region by the James Beard Foundation in 2018, shortly before competing on the Bravo reality series Top Chef.

Cocktails at Lita in Aberdeen

Umeboshi, made from vodka, plum sake, umeboshi cordial, soda and coconut-chai foam. Photo: James Worrell

Soon after its opening in spring of 2023, Lita switched to a three-course prix fixe format: aperitivos, small appetizers designed as finger foods; essenciais, traditional starters; and especialidades, entrees. Desserts and cocktails are offered á la carte. You can also sit at the bar and order from the menu á la carte, a popular choice, judging by the crowd we saw during two visits.

Two aperitivos reveal Viana’s flexible, creative approach to food. On our first visit, we began with atún cru, tuna tartare and jalapeño topped with roasted almonds and wrapped in a minty shiso leaf, served in a bowl of ice.

Remolacha beets at Lita in Aberdeen

Remolacha beets Photo: James Worrell

A few weeks later, atún cru had shifted to the esencialies section, served with pistachio butter and jamón. Viana added a vegetarian version to the aperitivo choices: remolacha, with minced beets subbing for tuna on the shiso leaf. They look almost exactly the same and share the same bright, fresh flavor notes. Tying both versions together was the key Iberian ingredient, ajo blanco, an almond-based cold soup from Spain, which Viana used as a sauce.

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Featured on the menu this winter was one of Lita’s heartiest entrées, arroz malandrinho de grelos, an Iberian risotto. Milkier than the Italian style and vividly green, thanks to the minced broccoli rabe that melded with the rice, the risotto was paired with a simple cold crab salad for sweetness and freshness. “Broccoli rabe and rice are served with fish in Portugal,” Viana explains. “I like to add texture, with the crab and the crunchy things on top.” A stewed rice dish that later replaced the risotto featured octopus and squid.

The team at Lita in Aberdeen

Left to right: Executive chef David Viana, director of operations and hospitality Danny McGill, managing director Neilly Robinson, and chef de cuisine Brian Lopes. Photo: James Worrell

Chef de cuisine Brian Lopes created another outstanding entrée, feijoada de pato, in which the traditional bean stew is elevated by the use of duck instead of beef, with smoked pork belly and chorizo.

In late 2023, Esquire magazine named Lita one of the 50 best new restaurants in the country. New Jersey Monthly also named Lita one of the state’s best new restaurants of the year. And in January, the James Beard Foundation nominated Lita for best new restaurant, the only one in New Jersey.

Spanish-style meatballs in a sherry-almond sauce at Lita in Aberdeen

Albondigas—Spanish-style meatballs—in a sherry-almond sauce. Photo: James Worrell

Viana’s creativity and his use of luxurious ingredients, from the sherry that accompanies the Spanish meatballs to the saffron in braised chicken with spaghetti, as well as the staff’s warm, accommodating, highly professional service, make Lita worthy of every accolade.

HOW WE REVIEW: Restaurants are chosen for review at the sole discretion of New Jersey Monthly’s editors, based on input from our food writers and critics around the state. Our reviewers visit a restaurant at least twice, always maintaining anonymity to avoid preferential treatment. The reviewer brings up to three guests per visit and tastes everything that is ordered. NJM reimburses the reviewer for all food and beverage expenses. After the final visit, the reviewer conducts a phone interview with the chef, owner or other key members of the team. The review is then submitted to NJM and edited for clarity and fairness. Stars are assigned by the editor in consultation with the reviewer. As a final step, an NJM staffer checks the review for accuracy, always calling the restaurant to confirm all facts. 

Four stars = extraordinary; three stars = excellent; two stars = very good; one star = good; half a star = fair.

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
  • Price Details:
    Three-course prix fixe: $78 per person at press time.
  • Ambience:
    Warm and modern, with an open-hearth kitchen.
  • Service:
    Impeccable. Chefs double as wait staff.
  • Wine list:
    Classic cocktails and fruit-forward drinks, plus six sparkling wines from Spain and Portugal. Enjoy at Lita or at its adjacent cocktail room, La Otra.