What used to be the Annex Bar and Grill on Nassau Street and Tulane Avenue is now Sotto 128, an upscale Italian restaurant and bar that also serves up live music. The Annex, which had become a beloved watering hole and lunch spot for Princetonians and visitors alike, has given way to a stone-lined room with a music stage, bar, and a well-stocked wine cellar to the left and an intimate dining area to the right.
“We’re trying to create a vibe on Nassau Street,” says Rich Carnevale, one of Sotto 128’s owners and the son of the former Annex owner. “Not only for our own benefit, but for the benefit of Princeton. That was part of the whole intent here, to take an existing landmark and make it into something greater than it was.”
The restaurant’s principals hope Sotto’s radical new decor, its ascension as a music venue and its menu will differentiate it from other popular Princeton eating places such as La Mezzaluna and the Witherspoon Grill, as well as music and food venues such as Meditera and Triumph Brewing Company.
“Sotto in Italian means under,” says John Procaccini, another one of Sotto’s quadrumvirate of owners. “It’s a trendy name, easy to pronounce, and it means something, so it’s appropriate.”
It is way too early to determine whether the restaurant is a success, or will be a success. But so far, on several fronts, Sotto 128 has done enough to merit quite a degree of interest and its potential seems significant.
The four principals are tightly connected — they are, in fact, family. Rich and Joe Carnevale, whose family had run the Annex since 1948 are in partnership with John and Tino Procaccini, who run La Principessa in Kingston.
The DNA of the two restaurants has now blended — La Principessa brings its menu to Sotto 128. Rich Carnevale, along with his brother, ran the Annex from the 1980s until they shut it down to transform it into Sotto, says Carnevale, who has been at the place almost daily since he was nine years old. The family says the location that housed La Principessa will be converted into a liquor store that specializes in high-end Italian wines and spirits.
The division of labor is interesting and sensible; cousins Rich Carnevale and John Procaccini run the front of the room (the bar and restaurant) together; cousins Joe Carnevale and Tino Procaccini run the kitchen.
It was John Procaccini who had the biggest impact on the design of the restaurant, his brother and cousins agree. “If you would have seen what this place looked like before, you would see a big, big difference. What we wanted to do was make this place sort of a lounge, a higher-end place with authentic Italian food,” says John Procaccini. “We gave the place a real subterranean feel, like a grotto. We want this to be sort of a rendezvous-type place, distinct from being out there.”
On the right side of the stage is a series of screens that block off a private area where patrons can sit in relative anonymity. Near the side wall, on the same side as the entrance door, there are thickly cushioned benches for patrons. Behind the stage is a fireplace, but it’s only there for decorative purposes; you won’t be able to light anything up on a cold winter night.
Sotto’s overall effect, with recessed and track lighting, exposed cut stone on the walls, and lots of tans, grays and browns, is both warm and coolly astringent, with a multicultural American upscale vibe. But a visitor who has spent much time in the Far East also noticed elements of Japanese design, a factor confirmed by John Procaccini, who has taken many business trips in his day job as a Sarnoff Corporation engineer and executive. On the wall, one of the four clocks set to time zones around the world has Tokyo time. (The others are set to Los Angeles, Princeton, and Rome.)
On a recent Thursday night at 9 p.m. the front of the restaurant and the small but well-stocked bar, was full if not totally packed. The quartet of owners sunk more than $250,000 into the new venture, and they hope it will last. They understand that restaurant ventures, even the most well-conceived, are a lot like the careers of sports team managers. Sooner or later, all are doomed to fail. But Rich Carnevale hopes his new venture lasts at least as long as his family’s old one.
Sotto 128’s menu is much like that of La Principessa — hearty, well-seasoned chicken, veal, beef, pork and pasta specialties. A chicken breast-and-sausage dish sampled last week was redolent with a rich white wine sauce and a generous helping of al dente pasta — and it was very good.
Mike Matisa, a former drummer, singer, and guitarist who books Sotto 128’s music acts, also has a close relationship with the principals. An engineer by training, he worked with John Procaccini at Sarnoff for more than a decade.
Matisa says his goal, and that of the Procaccini/Carnevales, is to bring a new dimension — first in terms of having music, and secondly, in terms of the quality and variety of the music itself — to the Nassau Street and Princeton areas.
“The pool of musicians I am booking here are, in my mind, are nothing but the top caliber talent you can find in this area,” says Matisa. “Everyone who is playing here is well-established. They have a good quality. They’re not practicing on our time.” The restaurant offers live music Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.
So far, Sotto has had music acts at the club such as Jersey rockers Ernie White and John Bushnell and jazz drummer Rick Fiori. Matisa says Sotto 128 will concentrate on bluesy, classic, or folkish rock music, as well as jazz, almost exclusively. “Serious musicianship.”
The Princeton music crowd “is a very eclectic crowd,” says Matisa. “Jazz bands will do very well here. Lots of the jazz musicians are local instructors. And of course the rock acts are always fun, you can sing along with them, they’re a little more interactive with the crowd.”
Lisa Bouchelle, a vivacious, loquacious singer and guitarist with a weakness for a cappella soul and pink hair, and recently opened for rocker Bryan Adams in Atlantic City, was performing on Sotto’s small, but intimately warm stage on the night we visited. Her music can be downloaded on the Starbucks Coffee MP3 site. “I feel she’s a serious up-and-coming star,” Matisa says.
“It looks so different down here now. It has a great atmosphere,” says Bouchelle, born in Trenton and now a resident of Fairless Hills, PA. “Acoustically, it is great for a show. My fans were saying that they could hear me very well here.”
She believes and hopes that Sotto will become a popular venue for music. “This place is building, starting with the dinner crowd and will build into a nightlife crowd. Princeton has a crowd that is appreciative of music, and I feel this will be a good place to be in in the future.”