- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2000

One might have been forgiven for thinking the party was an Italian wedding reception a very, very big one, that is. An event where sports heroes and the president of the United States rather than a kissing couple brought the crowd to its feet.

It was no surprise the National Italian American Foundation dinner was packed with 3,000 guests Saturday night: It's a must-attend evening for anyone who is anybody in the Italian-American community. And for this year's 25th anniversary celebration, there were plenty of big players indeed: President Clinton, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, Justice Antonin Scalia, White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, Motion Picture Association of America chief Jack Valenti, Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Constance Morella and former vice presidential candidate and current "Crossfire" host Geraldine Ferraro.

NIAF pronounced variously NEE-af or NIE-af throughout the evening awards scholarships, monitors Italian-American stereotypes in the media (let's not even mention HBO's "The Sopranos"), and otherwise aims to speak for the 25 million Americans of Italian ancestry. This year's gala, which raised $3.5 million for the cause, was the most financially successful event in the foundation's history (helped in no small part by dinner chairman Richard Grasso, head of the New York Stock Exchange).

An awards ceremony honored the contributions of, among others, fashion designer Miuccia Prada, champion football coach Dick Vermeil and Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, while a "One America" Award went to Muhammad Ali and his Italian-American trainer Angelo Dundee. Though Mr. Bocelli was unable to travel to Washington due to a case of the flu, NIAF went all out to present him live anyway, via satellite from Tuscany, despite having to contend with frantic last-minute technical challenges and a tiresome time difference. It was 1:30 a.m. in Italy when Mr. Bocelli, looking not so hot, sang a few songs with a full orchestra after accepting his award with apologies for not attending.

Four large screens magnified the proceedings, helpful to the many guests who were nearly a football field away from the celebrity-laden stage, bedecked with shaky faux-Roman columns (one fell, rather spookily, while Mr. Vermeil was at the lectern).

Rubber chicken? Fugeddaboudit. The dinner was delicious: antipasto with mozzarella and prosciutto, oricchiette and Italian sausage in chicken broth, followed by a tender lamb chop in merlot and rosemary sauce on a potato frittata. Many of the ingredients were donated by Italian companies, as was the free-flowing wine. Mouthwatering chocolate-dipped cannoli and rich espresso were available later, at a well-stocked dessert buffet down the hall.

Most of the VIPs gathered first in a pre-dinner holding room where there were a few less-than-obvious guests. How many knew that '60s teen idol and all-American singing sensation Bobby Rydell was born Robert Ridarelli? "People couldn't pronounce Ridarelli," the now-pompadour-free Mr. Rydell explained with a laugh, "so when my father saw I had talent at an early age, he called me 'Rydell.'"

It was Mr. Rydell's second time at the NIAF dinner. "I'm so proud to be an Italian-American or American-Italian, whatever you want to call it," he said.

The controversial Dr. Laura Schlessinger was visible on the sidelines, as well very petite, very blond, dressed in an off-white suit and looking less feisty than she sounds on her radio call-in-and-get-yelled-at show. Yes, she affirmed, she is Jewish, but surprise she's also part Italian. Her mother's maiden name was Ceccovini.

"After this weekend," Miss Schlessinger added, "I'm interested in exploring my Italian roots, so to speak."

Actors Richard Crenna (of the Rambo movies) and Michael Badalucco ("The Practice") attracted their share of camera lights, but the real stars of the night were the sports figures: Mr. Ali, Yankees legend Yogi Berra and baseball's Tommy Lasorda pressed together for a winning group photo. "It was a good week for the Yankees, of course," Mr. Berra said of his old team's latest World Series win. "I didn't like to see it end in five [games] … but I'm happy." Later, the crowd offered a round of applause for Yankees manager Joe Torre, in absentia.

Mr. Clinton, who had attended six of the last eight NIAF galas, showed up after dinner for his seventh, this time to present the awards to Mr. Ali and Mr. Dundee. Both received a roar from the crowd and a heartfelt standing ovation.

When Mr. Vermeil received a lifetime achievement award in sports he expressed his gratitude toward NIAF, his family, the National Football League and everyone else he could think of. Then he became a bit weepy with emotion. "That," he declared, to the crowd's delight, "is the Italian in me."

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