Farewell to Annex like bidding a friend adieu

"Family Business" column

By: Diane Landis Hackett
   When my husband and I first moved to Princeton as newlyweds, we had a tiny kitchen with almost no room for a table so we sometimes ate at the Annex Restaurant on Nassau Street. The Annex had a comfortable homey feel, which made the newness of marriage and a new town seem less overwhelming.
   The dark wood-paneled restaurant decorated with Princeton University memorabilia felt like someone’s dining room. There was little fuss, and the regulars seemed happy with everything just the way it was. The food was simple — nothing tricky or, perhaps, even memorable — but it was comfort food just the same.
   When we moved to a house and started a family, we stopped going to the Annex. We cultivated a taste for Thai and Indian, Japanese and Korean food and saved the less adventurous meals for our own cozy dining table lit with candles and populated by our very own regulars.
   In 13 years, the town has changed dramatically, but the Annex has remained the same. It is still a family-owned, small business that has weathered the influx of yuppies and chain stores and micro-breweries and held fast to its one-of-a-kind-style.
   On a recent Wednesday night, I returned to the Annex with a group of women friends. Co-owner Joe Carnevale was at the door with the same gentle smiling eyes that greeted me the first time I wandered down those long, steep steps years ago.
   As I glanced around the almost empty dining room, I saw single diners reading by candlelight, a young couple drinking beer leaning in nose to nose, and I believe the same older refined couple who I used to eavesdrop on so many years ago, sitting at the same table — eating and discussing politics.
   Our group was by far the noisiest party. We were lucky that our extremely pleasant waiter, Kevin, seemed to actually enjoy our merriment. We stayed a long time for a mid-week outing, though, and even sat at the bar next to a group of revelers and ordered some after-dinner drinks. It was easy to be there and we vowed to return again.
   But, alas, we will never go to the Annex again. Our visit turned out to be a swan song for the tried-and-true Princeton institution. In just a few weeks, the wood-paneled décor, the name and the menu will be gone.
   In its place will be Sotto, which means "down" in Italian. It will be an "authentic" Italian restaurant, most likely offering live jazz and blues. They will have two additional owners — first cousins — an upgraded wine list and menu, and an appearance the family hopes will attract a more mature crowd of people.
   "It’s not going to be wood paneling but it is going to be cozy," says Rich Carnevale, co-owner, who adds that he has been waiting to make these changes for five years. He says one of the main drivers for the change is quality of life for the two brothers who have worked at the Annex for more than 30 years, beginning as dishwashers at age 9.
   "It is important to have a new challenge and learn new ways of doing business. You can’t hang onto something forever," Rich Carnevale says.
   Yet they might be eagerly anticipate ripping down the Princeton University artifacts that have been their identity for years — many of which will be donated to the public library and the historical society — but the brothers have no intention of touching their family’s long history in the restaurant business.
   The Annex has been in the Carnevale family for more than 60 years, starting with their great uncle, then their father. Now, the brothers will share ownership with their first cousins, John and Tino Proccacini, who currently own LaPrincipessa in the Kingston Shopping Center but will be closing that establishment to join forces and open Sotto.
   "We were at a point in our careers where it was time to come up with a succession plan," says Rich Carnevale, who said that his 14-year-old daughter couldn’t wait to start working at the restaurant this summer. He was reminded of a time when his father ran the business and almost every job at the Annex, from bartender to cook to busboy and waitress, was held by a Carnevale family member.
   Sitting at one of the round red tables in the bar area and watching the Carnevale brothers do their work, I am struck by two thoughts.
   The first is that this place is definitely in their blood. The brothers work in a constant rhythm that is not at all frenetic. They greet diners, joke with friends, answer phones, and assist employees with a simple ease and comfort that could only come from well-worn shoes.
   My second thought is that they definitely like one another. Born 16 months apart, an outsider might believe they were fraternal twins. They finish each other’s sentences, tell similar stories and say that after working side by side for almost 30 years, they look forward to finally going on vacation together now that they have their cousins to help mind the shop.
   Not everyone is so positive about the new changes however. One widower who sees the Annex as a safe haven told Joe Carnevale she wished they had waited until she died to make the changes.
   James Rivera of Rivera Design Build, who has known the Carnevale brothers since elementary school at Community Park in Princeton, wondered why they were trying to fix it if it wasn’t broken?
   And Susan and Bob Hale of Plainsboro, who have been eating at the Annex once a week for 20 years, were unsure if they would be able to "reestablish their comfort level" in the new restaurant.
   Ms. Hale added, "I do think this is a good challenge for them. They were pretty set in their ways."
   Citing the opening of alternative hang-outs for students and faculty, such as the Frist Center and Prospect House on the Princeton University campus, as well as the decline of the three-martini lunch and requests for smoke free dining, Joe Carnevale said he knew it was time for a change.
   "We have been doing the same thing for the last 30 years," he says. "The demographics and tastes of people have changed."
   And then in what almost seemed like the beginning of a children’s story, he added: "Once upon a time, Princeton was a small town filled with mom-and-pop type stores that took care of regular people. They threw all their time, energy and resources into the town. Now, it has become a mini metropolis. You can still walk down the street and wave at half a dozen people who you have known all your life, but the small town has changed and we have to adapt to what the small town is becoming."
   The end?
   Or, is it simply a new beginning?