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

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."

Sotto 128 Restaurant and Lounge, 128 Nassau Street, Princeton,

609-921-7555, www.sotto128.com.

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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