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This review by E.E Whiting was prepared for the May 24, 2006 issue

of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Let’s Try: Sotto 128

The ’49ers found their treasure in the form of nuggets of gold hidden

underground. Recently, we found treasure in nuggets of rich, yeasty

dough redolent with garlic also underground at Sotto, the smartly

renovated Annex. The descent to Princeton’s newest addition to

nightlife is the same, albeit with warm red textured walls, but the

space is transformed with stone and a more open plan. The bar has

ample room for waiting for a seat in the dining room, something

lacking in other venues, with couches and even a screened seating area

where a larger party can relax.

On our first visit, we arrived unannounced at 8 p.m. on a Saturday and

were told there would be a 20-minute wait. We were told they do accept

reservations, but the spacious bar invited the wait, and indeed it was

almost exactly 20 minutes. The full menu is served at the bar if we

had chosen not to wait for the dining room. We took the time to look

over the menu and the expanded, upgraded wine list but mostly

people-watched. Several familiar faces from the Annex days were there

along with a few families. Our waiter told us that anything on the

menu could be downsized for smaller appetites and there were several

choices of individual pizza.

Our second visit on another Saturday night was a bit more problematic

in that there was a miscommunication from the staff about the need for

reservations when we called, and we had a longer wait. Once seated, we

also had a wait of almost an hour for our entrees, but it was

Communiversity weekend, and the joint was jumping with diners and

music aficiandos. Perhaps the flow will improve as the kinks are

worked out in the kitchen.

The bar boasts funky, retro bucket seats that squooch down when you

sit and the stone-wall theme continues around the room. Thursdays,

Fridays, and Saturdays bring live music to the bar, and on both our

visits mellow jazz provided just the right level of sound, pleasant

but not at a decibel level to make conversation, romantic or

otherwise, impossible. The wait staff is a combination of new and old

hands, now smartly dressed in black with bright orange ties. The

owners are busily visible and eager to welcome old friends back for a

new experience.

The new management has brought a decidedly upscale fare, fresh and

varied, from their prior incarnation at La Principessa. The sinful

bread, served with a homemade olive relish, must be consumed by all

members of the party lest anyone not partaking succumb to the garlic.

On our first foray, we began by sharing polenta (always a challenge to

present well) with sweet sausage. A friend who was a habitue of La

Principessa recommends the large antipasto, considered enough for

four, which she ordered for her main course. Our choices for main

course were broiled flounder stuffed with crabmeat and chicken with

mozzarella, sausage, and peppers. A nice touch in this day of all a la

carte all the time is the inclusion of a small fresh house salad with

the meal.

Our next visit allowed us to discover the trout special and some of

the pasta dishes. The gnocchi were eagerly devoured by the carb lover

of the group. Unfortunately, the lobster ravioli were a disappointment

to this girl from Maine, who wished for actual chunks of lobster meat

rather than a finely ground paste filling. But the trout was firm and

moist, with nary a bone in its body.

Prices for the appetizers top out at $10 for the large antipasto.

Putting a twist on the usual appetizers is shrimp scampi bruschetta

($9) as well as the standards of eggplant rollatini and mussels in

marinara sauce ($9). The salads are substantial with additions of

shrimp and/or scallops and range from $7 to $10. The dinner menu

offers a good choice of pasta, veal, chicken, beef, and fish dishes

including rack of lamb. The entrees, while substantial, are not

overwhelmingly large, a pleasant change from groaning plates or

artfully sparse architectural creations. Main courses are priced in

the teens to high $20s. Among the dessert choices of creme brulee,

tiramisu, and sorbets, we chose to split a dish of two small but

perfectly formed cannolis, exactly enough to polish off the wine and

give a sweet ending.

Lunch offers panini ($9), wraps ($8 to $9) and black angus burgers,

including a burger oscar with fresh lump crabmeat ($9 to $10). Pizza

runs the gamut of styles, again some with a twist ($9 to $12).

The wine list is sizable and moderately priced with the exception of a

$120 bottle of Opus One. We opted for a bottle of the less flamboyant

Orvieto for $26, which went quite well with both the chicken and fish.

The ambiance is still friendly and casual. The upscale decor is not

stuffy and the welcome is genuine with the encouragement to linger to

hear the music sincere. This would be a good place to take guests, the

boss, or your sweetheart. And rumor has it that the restaurant now

offers oversized cloth napkins. instead of the flimsy paper ones when

we visited. The night is young, the company charming, the music

mellow, and the Manhattans well chilled. Sotto may be below Nassau

Street but it offers a welcome choice for above average food in

downtown Princeton. – E. E. Whiting

Sotto 128 Restaurant and Lounge, 128.5 Nassau Street, 609-921-7555.

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