Downtown landmark restaurant set for complete makeover

The Annex to be transformed to a more upscale Italian ristorante and lounge

By: Marjorie Censer
   One longtime Princeton institution is about to say goodbye — but its owners hope their new venture will be able to take its place.
   Joe and Rich Carnevale, owners of The Annex Bar & Grill on Nassau Street, will close down the business in roughly a week and a half as they prepare to open a new restaurant — an upscale Italian ristorante and lounge called Sotto — in the same location. The Carnevale brothers will team with their first cousins, John and Tino Procaccini, to open the new restaurant.
   The Procaccini brothers own La Principessa Ristorante in the Kingston Shopping Center — and they, too, will close their restaurant in a week and a half. They will convert that space into a fine wine and liquor store.
   The Carnevales and the Procaccinis have long wanted to merge their restaurants. The Annex opened in 1948 and was first run by the Carnevales’ uncle, while the Procaccinis established La Principessa more recently in 1999.
   John Procaccini said Sotto will combine the downtown Princeton location of the Annex with the authentic Italian food of La Principessa.
   "We’ve always wanted Princeton, but we couldn’t get into it," John Procaccini said. This is "the perfect combination."
   The Annex will be closed for several weeks and is slated to reopen, with a fresh, new look, in mid-March.
   The owners said the new restaurant will draw on its underground location.
   "We want to make the subterranean concept a positive rather than a negative," John Procaccini said, describing the new look as "cavernous."
   Sotto is the Italian word for underground, and Joe Carnevale said the new look of the restaurant will feature imported European stone, stucco walls, archways and a brick oven hearth.
   Though the Carnevales said regular Annex customers will be in for a change, both sets of owners said they would retain a high level of variety on the menu, reasonable prices and late hours. John Procaccini said the restaurant will become a lounge in the evening, and the owners hope to feature more live entertainment.
   It’s no coincidence that the two sets of brothers both ended up in the restaurant business, Joe Carnevale said. The Carnevales’ father encouraged family members to join the business. Working together will allow the cousins to spend more time together and also to more efficiently share the workload.
   "We’re going to be working smarter, not harder," Rich Carnevale said. Rich Carnevale and John Procaccini will staff the front of the restaurant, while Joe Carnevale and Tino Procaccini will man the kitchen. The Procaccinis’ catering business will also be relocated to Sotto.
   The cousins said they’re looking forward to introducing a new kind of restaurant to downtown Princeton — authentic Italian that one can’t find anywhere else.
   "When it comes to Italian, I think nobody’s going to be able to touch us," Tino Procaccini said. The new menu will include pasta, seafood, steak and pizza.
   But the Carnevales know they’re saying farewell to a Princeton establishment.
   "It’s literally the end of an era," Rich Carnevale said.