- The Washington Times - Monday, October 22, 2001

The 3,000 guests at the Hilton Washington and Towers (who paid $350 and more for tickets) came as always to honor prominent Italian Americans, support NIAF's scholarship and education programs and, most deliciously, enjoy a stomach-stretching dinner (antipasto, orecchiette in a Gorgonzola and fennel sauce, lamb chops with mushrooms and truffle oil) created from mostly imported Italian ingredients.
During such patriotic times, it wasn't surprising there was more focus on "American" than "Italian-American."
"We have an immense pride in our ancestry," said NIAF president Joseph Cerrell, noting that the evening's theme was "God Bless America." The dais was backed by a massive American flag, while the Italian flag hung small at the side of the stage.
Before dinner, Mr. Cerrell conceded that the gala was a far cry from what his organization originally planned. Last year, Muhammad Ali got a standing ovation at the party. This year it was Kathleen Ganci, the widow of Peter J. Ganci Jr., the New York Fire Department chief who died in the World Trade Center collapse. NIAF has set up a memorial in her husband's name to support the children of fallen rescue workers.
NIAF's main missions are to represent the 25 million Americans with Italian ancestry and raise and award scholarship money for young Italian Americans.
The staff also keeps an eye on what it perceives as odious Italian-American stereotypes which may be why it's no coincidence that great directors and actors associated with Mafia films (Martin Scorcese, Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola) have never been honored at the event. "The Sopranos" star James Gandolfini certainly shouldn't hold his breath.
Since last month's attacks, of course, it has been difficult for charities to lure big names to glittery fund-raisers. This was the first year in a long time a sitting president didn't attend the politically important gala former President Bill Clinton came seven years straight though President Bush did offer a videotaped message of support.
The honoree with the biggest name, Mr. Cage, canceled his long-scheduled appearance. He was to have been the first inductee in the Italian American Celebrity Hall of Fame. Instead, he'll be honored this spring at NIAF's first Los Angeles-based festa.
Rumors abounded that Mr. Cage was afraid to fly cross-country.
If true, that seemed rather odd coming from the tough-guy star of "Wild at Heart," "Kiss of Death" and "Con Air, the 1997 action film about a group of convicts who hijack a plane. NIAF spokesmen, however, suggested Mr. Cage just didn't feel it was appropriate to accept an award in such tragic times.
To ease the blow, guests' gift bags contained a DVD of "The Family Man," starring Mr. Cage and Tea Leoni.
Happily, three deserving achievers did show up to be honored: Domenico De Sole, president and chief executive of Gucci Group; Roger Enrico, vice chairman of PepsiCo Inc.; and actor Christopher Reeve, who with his absent wife, Dana Morosini Reeve (she had a work commitment, Mr. Reeve's handlers said), got NIAF's One America award for raising money for spinal-cord-injury research.
Other big names crowded the pre-dinner VIP reception (where there seemed to be more photographers and journalists than VIPs), including Italian deputy prime minister Gianfranco Fini, baseball legend Yogi Berra and, even more conspicuously, uniformed representatives from the New York City police and fire departments.
Also on hand: actor Dennis Farina, former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Rep. John LaFalce, Sens. Mary Landrieu and Rick Santorum, Italian Ambassador Ferdinando Salleo and New York Stock Exchange Chairman Richard Grasso.

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