- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 16, 2016

Don’t ever take sides against the family.

Political dignitaries, celebrities and guests gathered at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Northwest Saturday evening for the National Italian American Foundation’s 41st annual gala to honor standout Italians and Americans of Italian heritage.

The event was emceed by NIAF President John M. Viola and comedian Joe Piscopo, and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser also attended.

“This is a great celebration of friendship between the United States and Italy,” Armando Varricchio, Italy’s ambassador to the U.S., said at the start of the gala dinner.

Among the honorees: Dr. Aileen Riotto Sirey of the National Organization of Italian American Women, former Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris, and Joe and Anthony Russo, who directed the last two “Captain America” films.

Pro Football Hall of Famer Mr. Harris recalled his Italian mother’s cooking during his youth in New Jersey in a mixed-race household. His father, was who black, had served in World War II and met his mother during the Allied campaign in Italy.

Mr. Harris became famous for his fans dubbing themselves “Franco’s Italian Army,” and he was the first Italian-American to be named a Superbowl MVP.

Mr. Harris says he too enjoys cooking, but cheekily said he would not say which side of his heritage produced his athletic abilities.

Italian singer Alma Manera performed traditional songs in her silkily operatic soprano, before legendary singer/record producer Tony Renis, 78, came out to sing his hit “Quando Quando Quando.”

“I have not sung in public in 20 years,” Mr. Renis said, “but I will sing it for you.”

Mr. Renis, presented a lifetime achievement award for entertainment, received a standing award for his rendition of the song he wrote more than a half-century ago.

The Russo brothers of Cleveland spoke about how their Italian heritage helped them to rely on family when they were starting out as filmmakers. Their grandmother, who spoke almost no English, lived upstairs from the youngsters, who recalled the smell of her tomato sauce.

Joe Russo related how their father, Basil, at first refused to speak to him after Joe dropped out of law school to finish a film with his brother, but eventually Basil dug into his own pension to help his sons complete their first film, “Pieces.”

“We had so many relatives in the crew that we spelled out [their relations to us] in the credits,” Anthony Russo told the crowd.

Joe Russo recalled attending a previous NIAF dinner, where Nicholas Cage (born Nicholas Coppola) was an honoree. Later that evening, he found Mr. Cage, completely by chance, atop the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He introduced himself as an aspiring filmmaker — thinking that this would be his big break — but Mr. Cage only shook his hand and told him, “Good luck, kid.”

“I realized that this is where it starts. Nobody was going to give it to us, and it would take every drop of us to get there,” Joe said of the serendipitous moment with Mr. Cage.

Joe then told the crowd he and his brother would be found atop the Lincoln Memorial steps later that evening to impart the same advice to any young filmmakers who happened to find them there.

The brothers’ “Captain America: Civil War” is the second highest-grossing film of 2016 thus far, behind “Finding Dory.” They will undertake the biggest chapters in the Marvel Comics Universe — with “Avengers: Infinity War” scheduled for release in 2018 and “Avengers 4” in 2019.

The Russos’ father then announced that the family is launching a program to assist young filmmakers tell the Italian-American experience “in as inspiring a way as they can.”

Sebastian Stan, who plays James “Bucky” Barnes in the Marvel films, told The Washington Times he was thrilled to see his directors honored and “give the big speeches of the night.”

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