Caressed by warm breezes and lit by a brilliant sky, it is a quintessential late summer day on the North Fork. The annual growing season is winding down and the onslaught of harvest festivals is near.
Customers entering Lombardi’s Love Lane Market in Mattituck encounter a rustic table set with sumptuous produce. There are baskets bursting with dimpled red and gold heirloom tomatoes, pristine eggplant, pungent garlic and tiny russet potatoes. The display of local bounty is both exquisitely designed house advertising and a celebration of the surrounding community, all artfully curated by proprietor Lauren Lombardi.
“Visually and aesthetically I want to have an effect on people when they first walk in. I want the store to be very welcoming and inspiring,” said Lombardi, a caterer by trade with the soul of an artist. “I love romanticizing food. I studied Renaissance art in Florence so that really is what ties it all together.”
Clients say Lombardi has an insatiable eye for detail. She becomes energized as she talks about planning an arrangement. A platter is a blank canvas. Her oeuvre is defined by color, texture and composition. “She has a signature aesthetic that I would call rustic and European in nature, like dishes you would expect to be served alfresco at a communal table next to a rolling vineyard in Tuscany,” said Ami Opisso, general manager at Lieb Cellars. “Her presentation is as equally important to her as her ingredients and preparation, with little touches like big antique wooden platters, French linens, beautiful bowls, edible flowers, fresh herbs and other unique garnishes. Her food tastes and looks beautiful. It’s art.”
Lombardi compares the Love Lane spread to the antipasti table found at restaurants throughout her ancestral Italy. “Whether it is baby grilled eggplants or some kind of peppers, or if you’re in the South it can be anchovies, or sardines and olive oil, it showcases what they’re proud of, what they’re best at.”
This custom—infused with a local flare—underscores Lombardi’s approach to food. A tall, winsome blonde with sparkling eyes and a sunny smile, she is a third-generation entrepreneur whose family emigrated from Italy to Suffolk in the 1960s establishing an expansive food business. With time-tested recipes in hand, “Mamma” Michelina Lombardi arrived from Avellino, Italy, in 1968. The family opened their first restaurant in Holbrook in 1976 serving home style Italian fare. Over four decades, the Lombardi’s have expanded to multiple locations and offerings. They even market a line of pasta sauces based on Michelina’s proprietary recipe.
At age 34, Lombardi is reimagining the family business, blending old word tradition, a passion for art and photography, and a reverence for locally grown produce to cultivate her distinct food aesthetic on the North Fork.
Lauren spent her formative years working in the family business and those experiences are a guiding force as she moves forward on her own. “The hospitality industry is just a part of me. It’s in my blood.” Her jobs were varied, from setting tables to working stations during cocktail hour. And despite being one of the family, the staff would challenge her. Once, a pantry chef, one who handles cold food preparation, taught her to carve a mouse out of a lemon, an early sign that she would someday be handling food as art.
Her father noticed her inclination to immerse herself in family events. “Lauren was always involved,” Guy Lombardi said. “If we had family dinners, Lauren was always in the middle, doing something or making something.”
Lombardi made her path official, studying business and art and earning a chef certificate at the French Culinary Institute. In 2014, she became the family standard-bearer, acquiring the market at Love Lane and opening under the Lombardi name. Since then she has established a thriving specialty food market and catering business that honors tradition and reaches deep into the fabric of the East End.
It was perhaps inevitable that she would end up on Love Lane. The picturesque, tree-lined street is home to a post office, cheese shop, wine bar and chocolatier. “I’ve always loved this street,” she said. “It’s a little slice of North Fork heaven.”
The market has been a fixture in Mattituck—under various owners—for more than a decade. For a time, it appeared the neighborhood institution might not survive. Once operated by the owners of Love Lane Kitchen, the market suffered significant damage during Superstorm Sandy and was shuttered in late 2013. Lombardi described 2014 as a whirlwind. She completed her chef training, got married and re-launched the Love Lane Market. But she’d had her eye on the property for much longer.
“I remember when this was more of a neighborhood grocery market,” she said. “I’d always thought if we ever did move east that this place would be perfect.”
Outside the market, one can sit for hours at a café table and savor a luscious sandwich of prosciutto and homemade mozzarella drizzled with pesto or a pizza made with fresh figs gifted by the chef down the road.
Love Lane enjoys a loyal patronage. Some seek traditional Italian comfort food. For others, their visit is a weekly ritual that connects them to the lifeblood of the North Fork. “I get people who are very nostalgic. They say it smells like their grandmother’s kitchen.”
The market exudes old world charm, from the gleaming countertops and distressed wooden floors to the generous platters of food and succulent cuts of meat wrapped in white paper. Italian cured meats and fresh mozzarella are customer favorites. An espresso bar features a selection of traditional sweet treats. Lombardi circulates through the market, chatting with staff members like they are family and answering questions from customers. Classic Italian love songs fill the air.
Spend time with Lombardi and it is clear she is nourished by family ties and freely shares her energy with those around her. She is captivated by events when food, family and friends meet—and is meticulous about capturing these moments. She personally manages the market’s social media, using her iPhone to chronicle her creations. She is mesmerized by moody light—how it plays with the color and texture of food—and compiles a lavish digital scrapbook of culinary experiences and memories. She has amassed nearly 29,000 photos.
Her work ethic is old-school. She is in perpetual motion seven-days-a-week, managing the store, meeting with clients and designing catering menus. She cares deeply about client satisfaction, overseeing every detail at weekend events. And she is a constant presence at local food and wine affairs.
Moving through the store, Lombardi stops to marvel at a bouquet of ethereal edible flowers delivered that morning from a nearby farm. Her mind is at work, imagining how the flowers might enhance a menu item. “Down the road is The Farm Beyond that actually specializes in growing edible flowers and garnishes. She’ll just drop off flowers that I can decorate with.”
Such neighborly acts of kindness are not by chance. From the beginning, Lombardi set out to forge relationships and collaborate with those who represented the best in food and wine on the East End. The market’s website includes a long list of suppliers described as “Local Loves.”
“I knew what I wanted to create. I’ve made a lot of great friends whether they are farmers or winemakers and everyone is very welcoming. It’s a culture that has always been important to me and the way I grew up.”
“Lauren doesn’t have to source locally, she wants to,” Opisso said. “She recognizes the importance of supporting and being a part of our tight knit community of artisans. She’s an example of a business that can thrive on the North Fork because of a genuine interest in contributing to and giving back to this special community.”
Lombardi’s dedication and creative spirit have earned her the gratitude of her family and the respect of the North Fork community. “I think she’s upheld the Lombardi name beyond our expectations,” her father said. The motto “Mangia Bene, Vive Bene” or “Eat Well, Live Well” is posted throughout the market. And while living well means embracing the modern farm-to-table movement, Lombardi always finds parallels to her Italian heritage. “Everyone is very much intertwined. The chef from the restaurant across the tracks brought me figs this morning! That’s what it’s like at the village in Italy.”
Lombardi has embraced a vocation that nurtures relationships, be it next of kin, clients, farmers or winemakers. Food is a means to commune with the past and collaborate with neighbors over a plentiful table. It’s no surprise that when asked to name the type of food she believes is most evocative her eyes brighten. Without hesitation, she chooses vine-ripened tomatoes. “I love things when they’re still attached to the vine or have that connection to where they were grown.”