- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Few people in the world have the star power to upstage a trio like Tony Bennett, Robert De Niro and Yogi Berra. Count on film goddess Sophia Loren to outshine them all mere mortals at the National Italian American Foundation's 27th-anniversary gala at the Hilton Washington and Towers Saturday night.
There was no point resisting.
"I'm going to make this quick. I love Sophia Loren," Mr. De Niro told the 3,000 guests before NIAF inducted them both into its recently created Italian American Hall of Fame.
Lesser celebrities milling near a temporary holding pen set up for the press stopped conversations to gawk when Miss Loren,68, entered in a flurry of flashbulbs and microphones, glowing in an orange Armani gown and towering above her escort, Motion Pictures Association President Jack Valenti.
Admirers clung so tightly that it took a few minutes for security to push her through the room, cutting short any attempts to talk above the din. Mr. De Niro hustled by for an even quicker visit in front of the cameras; most of his few words were lost as reporters shouted questions.
"Great culture, great food, great people. A great country. I love it," he said when asked about his forebears' ancestral land.
CNBC anchor Ron Insana, the evening's master of ceremonies, had no trouble summing up the honorees' exalted status: "We have a man tonight who, at one point in our lives, all Italian men wanted to be. And we got the woman who at one point in our lives all Italian men wanted to marry."
Guests, who had paid $350 per person or more to attend, uncorked their love when the celebrities finally were introduced from the dais. Entertainers clearly outranked public servants.
Mr. Berra earned a chant ("Yogi, Yogi, Yogi") from the crowd. Former professional wrestling champion Bruno Sammartino got a cheer that drowned out one received by Maryland Rep. Constance A. Morella, although that no doubt was because of the large percentage of out-of-towners in the room.
The crowd was so ecstatic that at one point, a speaker had to ask them to stop crowding the view of the guests at the top tables. It was all the Hilton staff could do to churn out the thousands of plates of somewhat cold pasta and veal chops. Nonetheless, the diners (with Italian in their blood or Italian in their hearts, as Washington Archbishop Theodore Cardinal McCarrick put it) were committed to having a good time which wasn't too difficult when the entertainment included Mr. Bennett crooning "You Won't Believe Your Eyes" to Miss Loren.
When her turn finally came to speak, the actress reminded the group that the night was also about the experience, retold again and again throughout the evening, of Italians who sought America's promise and gifts, kept families close and in many ways lived their dreams through their children's and grandchildrens' successes.
"Italy has given the world some of its greatest treasures, and America remains a beacon of freedom and opportunity for the world," she said, noting that "NIAF preserves our common heritage and, most importantly, helps our children."
NIAF expected to gross about $3 million for scholarships, grants, youth programs and Italian-American anti-defamation efforts. The foundation's Gift of Discovery program provides educational trips for American and Italian students in each other's countries. The Students to Leaders program takes the youngsters to New York and Washington for inside views of finance and government. New this year is a music scholarship in honor of Dean Martin.
Other awardees included Paul Chiapparone, vice chairman of Electronic Data Systems, who received a Special Achievement Award for Humanitarian Service; Robert Nardelli, chairman and chief executive of the Home Depot (Special Achievement in Business); and Thomas D. Mottola, chairman and chief executive of Sony Music Entertainment (Special Award in the Music Industry).
Other VIP guests included homeland security director Tom Ridge, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Miss Italy of the World Catalina Acosta, musician Chuck Mangione, actress Ruth Buzzi, Olympic skater Brian Boitano and CNBC's Maria Bartiromo.
Also capturing a fair share of attention was film director Lina Wertmuller, who was kept busy as the first ambassador to the Capri-Hollywood Italian American Film Festival, which ended here Sunday.
Miss Wertmuller left no doubt she was familiar with all the critical pans of the remake of her 1975 epic "Swept Away," about a rough sailor stranded on a desert island with his beautiful but obnoxious employer.
Her status as a film legend shone at a private dinner Friday at Georgetown's Cafe Milano, where the Academy Award nominee ("Seven Beauties," 1975) said she hadn't yet seen the new version, directed by Guy Ritchie and starring his wife, Madonna, but was willing to withhold judgment until she does.
"I was curious, because Madonna is so talented," Miss Wertmuller said, "but I hear these terrible things. I hope they're not true."
Miss Wertmuller, it should be noted, has written a screenplay for a sequel to "Swept Away" that picks up the characters' lives 25 years later.

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