Architect & Restaurant Veteran Pair Up To Enliven Suffern Food Scene With Upscale Italian Eatery

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Marcellos Ristorante Graduate Lloyd Leon and Noted Architect Ariel Aufgang Bet On Extensive Wine Collection, Seasonal Food, and Fun Aesthetics

By Tina Traster

Lloyd Leon didn’t go to a culinary school – he did something better.

Lloyd Leon
Lloyd Leon

The 53-year-old spent 25 years working at the former Marcellos Ristorante on Lafayette Avenue in Suffern honing the art of wine, food, and hospitality. Now he’s joined forces with Suffern architect Ariel Aufgang to open a high-end, innovative wine bar and Italian eatery in the former bank turned coffee shop at 50 Lafayette Avenue.

The pair are calling the restaurant Lavagna, which means blackboard in Italian, and connotes the idea that menus should be daily, fresh, and feature seasonal foods. Tip of the hat to Aufgang and his design team who’ve covered the walls with giant chalk-filled blackboards, lending the recently opened restaurant a feeling of whimsy and fun.

But this is serious business – and Leon and Aufgang, who briefly co-owned a New York City restaurant that folded after the pandemic, both know that. In January, 50 Lafayette Avenue, LLC, owned by former Suffern mayor Dagan LaCorte, sold the building to Lafayette 50, LLC, an entity affiliated with Aufgang for $1.2 million.

The property, a former bank building with a large parking lot, housed Java Love Coffee Roasters from 2019 until this past January when Java Love announced the closure of its Suffern location. The roaster still has a roasting company in Montclair, NJ, but had said at the time it was closing due to post-COVID difficulties and increased business expenses.

Marcellos, after a storied, 37-year-run, sold his family-style Italian go-to restaurant, in October 22, partly because of COVID, but mostly because he was ready to for a new adventure. The Rockland foodie fixture runs food and wine tours in Italy.

Lavagna was hatched over a dinner between Aufgang and Leon. The restaurant is helmed by Chef David Werner, who came from Point Seven, and also previously ran kitchens at The Leroy House in the West Village, and was executive chef under Wolfgang Puck at Cut at the Four Seasons.

The owners were itching to take a culinary swing. Aufgang, along with Don Brennan of Recon Construction of Mahwah, NJ, are equal majority partners, Leon holds a minority stake. Aufgang had already owned a restaurant and is a skilled architect and businessman, while Leon had lived the restaurant life since he was 14 years old, working in kitchens as he scaled the ladder. He is also an accredited sommelier, with a certificate from the Sommelier Society of America in New York.

Leon remembers early working days at Hebrew National Deli in Spring Valley, where he learned customer service, accuracy, and speed – skills needed in a bustling restaurant environment.

“I worked at restaurants and none of them exist anymore,” said Leon, which is not surprising but his long stint at Marcellos, he believes, was the dress rehearsal for this moment. “I started there as a waiter, and he promoted me to maître di within three months. It was a good fit.”

Over two and half decades, Leon learned front of the house, back of the house, and most importantly, the art and passion of wine.

“I had a nose for wine,” Leon said recently, while showing this reporter around the new collaboration. Everything has a fresh, minimalist feeling, with one exception. The former bank safe has been converted into a 70-degree wine cellar with 16-inch walls housing 115 labels, 23 of which will be available by the glass. “I have everything from humble to high quality.”

Leon didn’t grow up in a house with notable chefs or foodies – the Cuban family from Spring Valley viewed food as fuel. He learned that food and wine is an art at Marcellos.

“We’re Cuban,” Leon said, adding he grew up in a family of six siblings. “We ate meat loaf and roast chicken. There were piles of food. We didn’t eat out, we just cooked at home.”

And then an entirely new world opened.

“I started working in restaurants and thought it was fascinating,” he said. I’d see how important it was for hardworking people to come out for an evening, to share a bottle of wine, eat good food.”

This is where Leon polished his craft with wine. He joined Marcello on several trips to Italy, visiting obscure vineyards, learning about grapes, meeting multi-generational winegrowers who were still picking grapes by hand, becoming a student of agriculture.

And these travels taught him something very important: food and wine is all about curation and storytelling and that’s what separates a good food and drink experience from a memorable one.

“After a trip to Italy, I’d find myself telling diners about a wine, how hard the winemaker worked to overcome obstacles or a bad vintage, how the winery was surrounded by forests. I took the customers on a trip with me. Told them the back story.” He recalls one vineyard in Monzano, where he learned how vintners plant wildflowers to enhance the bouquet of the wine. He witnessed villagers showing up at harvest to pick the grapes. He craved to pass along these tales.

“The entire concept of building a restaurant around the wine selection is Lloyd ‘s idea to begin with,” said Aufgang. “We are confident that his 25 years of experience as a world traveled sommelier allows him to build a wine selection that will have people coming back to try something new or taste an old favorite. Even our food menu is conceptualized around what works well with the amazing selection of wines and imported craft beers.”

The pair hope to evangelize on the upscale food and wine experience in Suffern and beyond — a much needed aspect to Rockland’s food scene. They are hoping to give Suffern a culinary boost in the arm but understand how important and challenging it will be to market this concept around the county and beyond to Bergen County, New Jersey.

Aufgang believes Lavagna will draw from Bergen County because New York has a competitive advantage.

“Having a restaurant with under 100 seats and a liquor license is very difficult due to the cost of the license in New Jersey. In New York the license is affordable. This means we can have wine and beer offerings and still have a chic, romantic vibe for people from both New York and New Jersey who can appreciate a boutique eatery as opposed to a large corporate restaurant.”