Corrections or additions?
This article by Kevin L. Carter was prepared for the April 19, 2006
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
From the Annex to Sotto 128
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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."
Sotto 128 Restaurant and Lounge, 128 Nassau Street, Princeton,
Ed Wilson and Joe Kramer, acoustic rock, guitar and vocals. Thursday,
April 20, 9 p.m.
Patty Cronheim Band, jazz standards, Friday, April 21, 10 p.m.
Ron Kraemer Swingin’ Blues Trio, Saturday, April 22, 10 p.m.
Joe Grillo and Glen McClelland, sax and keyboards, jazz and
contemporary hits, Thursday, April 27, 9 p.m.
Ernie White and Tom Reock, two Jersey rock legends together, blues,
rock originals, and covers. Friday, April 28, 10 p.m.
John Bianculli Band, contemporary jazz. Friday, April 29, 9:30 p.m.
Ed Wall & Sandy Zio, light rock and R&B, keyboards and vocal,
Thursday, May 4, 9 p.m.
Rick Fiori, "Mr. Jaz Drums" and trio, Friday, May 5, 9 p.m.
Joe Vadala & Fran Smith of the Hooters, Saturday, May 6, 9 p.m.
Sandy Zio and Jeff Kline, light rock and R&B, 9 p.m.
Ernie White and Tom Reock, Friday , May 12, 9 p.m.
B.D. Lenz Group, jazz guitar, Saturday, May 13, 9 p.m.
Jeff Palmer & Friends, acoustic rock, Thursday, May 18, 9 p.m.
John Bianculli Quartet, contemporary jazz. Friday, May 19, 9:30 p.m.
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