DINING OUT: “We are set apart by our hands-on ownership. How many places do you go where the owner is at the front door? You can’t beat that.” The owners (and cousins) of Sotto Ristorante and Lounge are shown left to right: John Procaccini, Tino Procaccini, Rich Carnevale and Joe Carnevale.
Sotto Ristorante and Lounge at 128 Nassau Street is unique — an Italian grotto in the heart of downtown Princeton. Customers who descend to this subterranean location will find a romantic, old-world Italian restaurant, with a warm, welcoming atmosphere that invites diners to relax and linger.
“People can look at the entrance upstairs and have no idea of what’s down here. The subterranean setting is very European, very cosmopolitan, and it’s unusual for Princeton,” says owner Rich Carnevale.
What is more, Sotto, which opened two years ago, has a history. Located at the site of the longtime Princeton favorite, The Annex, it is owned by four cousins: Joseph and Richard Carnevale, former owners of The Annex, and John and Tino Procaccini, former owners of La Principessa Restaurant in Kingston. They decided to combine forces and offer a new Italian dining experience, and at the same time continue The Annex’s tradition of a family-friendly ambiance, emphasizing hands-on ownership.
Former customers of The Annex have found a brand new look. The space, which seats 150, has been completely renovated, and its unique underground location accounts for the new name, Sotto, meaning under or below in Italian.
“This is a subterranean location,” point out Mr. Carnevale and Mr. Procaccini. “We wanted to change the room into a grotto and added stonework to make it look as much like a grotto and as Italian as possible. We also added a fireplace, with a semi-private area nearby for pre-lunch business meetings, offering people a chance to get to know each other.”
“In a way, it was almost starting over without starting over,” adds Mr. Carnevale. “We already had the restaurant, and the renovation was exciting.
Of course, the focus is on food, with chefs Joe Carnevale and Tino Procaccini in the kitchen, creating the delicious dishes based on the cuisine of central Italy, especially from the Petoranello region, where both the Carnevales and Procaccinis have their roots. Family recipes are part of the menu, and the Procaccini brothers’ grandparents still own an olive orchard in the Petoranello area, where the restaurant’s virgin olive oil originates.
Fresh, high quality ingredients are a priority, report Mr. Carnevale and Mr. Procaccini. All entrees are served with salad, and everything is cooked to order. “The bread, including the very popular garlic knots, is homemade, and so is the pasta.”
Enthusiastic customers are enjoying a variety of Sotto’s specialties, including antipasti, especially the signature Della Casa — a variety of hot and cold Italian favorites which serves four; and a special featured appetizer: grilled jumbo shrimp and scallops, tossed with sliced apples and pears, with imported gorgonzola cheese.
Popular entrees are Vitello alla Torre — a tower of layered grilled mature veal medallions, fresh mozzarella, and grilled eggplant, served with homemade gnocchi in a basil pesto cream sauce; also Risotto Frutti di Mare, with sauteed calamari, jumbo shrimp and scallops, clams, and New Zealand mussels served over creamy arborio risotto, topped with Sambuca cream sauce.
Another favorite is Pasta Caprino: homemade pasta tossed with red peppers, caramelized red onions, roasted garlic and crumpled sausage in a goat cheese cream sauce.
In addition, says Mr. Procaccini, “We are seeing a lot of interest in the old traditional favorites, such as spaghetti and meatballs and chicken parmigiana. We also have six or seven special featured entrees each week.”
“We have something for every taste,” adds Mr. Carnevale, “and we can always take care of customers’ with special dietary needs.”
The array of mouthwatering desserts includes Sotto’s one-of-a-kind tiramisu, as well as a limoncello tiramisu. Gelato from Italy, in a variety of flavors, is a big favorite, as is the homemade cannoli, and chocolate souffle.
A full selection of wines and spirits is available, and Mr. Carnevale reports that more and more customers are enjoying wine with dinner. “In Italy, wine is considered part of the meal. I am really excited about the opportunity to expand my knowledge of the wines. We have a great selection, with bottles from $24 up to $215 for Opus One. Of course, customers may also order by the glass.”
In addition, the variety of after dinner liquers and specialty coffees is very popular.
Monday through Friday, Sotto hosts a Happy Hour, featuring drinks at half-price and assorted appetizers for $5. For dinner, entrees start at $18.
Live music, with a Spanish guitarist, is offered in the main dining room Friday and Saturday nights, and different bands are in the bar from 9 to 12.
“We are one of the better buys in Princeton,” points out Mr. Carnevale. “And this is a terrific date place. If you are taking a young lady out for the first time, this is different. It won’t break you, and there is entertainment on the weekend. There is never a feeling of being rushed. By the way, there have been several proposals of marriage while dining here. So far, we’re four for four with yeses!”
Catering and private parties are a growing part of Sotto’s business. The catering division can handle any size and style event off premises, and rehearsal dinners, bar/bat mitzvahs, and corporate parties are all popular at the restaurant. As Mr. Carnevale notes, “We seat 150 people, and we also have the ability to move the tables around for different configurations.”
All four owners are very happy with the continuing support of their customers, including many regulars, as well as those new to Sotto. “Every day that passes, we seem to get busier,” says Mr. Procaccini. “I have to say that six or seven of every 10 people who come in are new customers. This is amazing. We are feeding 300 people on Friday and Saturday nights.”—The key is to keep it interesting, both he and Mr. Carnevale agree. “The biggest challenge is to keep things fresh and new. You never want it to become mundane. You keep the menu up, the specials different. Whatever you can do to add that spice and keep it special. The idea is to have something that no one else has, but that everyone wants.
“And we always want to thank our patrons, including the regulars, the new ones, and the Principessa and Annex customers, who support us and continue to support us.
Sotto is open for lunch, dinner, and take-out Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday 4:30 to 9. Reservations recommended on weekends. (609) 921-7555. Website: sotto128.com
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