- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 28, 2006

Everything was molto bene Thursday night as the Sons of Italy Foundation hosted its 18th anniversary gala at the Omni Shoreham with nearly 1,000 guests toasting the home country and raising funds to benefit the foundation’s charities.

It’s a “must-attend” for politicians with big Italian-American constituencies like Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Christopher J. Dodd, who love to press the flesh and show their support.

But it was former President Bill Clinton who stole the show. Entering the ballroom, he was soon mobbed by fans and had to proceed to his table slowly, surrounded by a scrum of supporters.

For the record: he looks trim and healthy. We asked him, rather cheekily, what kind of “first laddie” he would make if his wife makes it to the White House and he laughed heartily. “I don’t think I want to address that question.” Then we asked if he had any Italian blood? “To the best of my knowledge, no.” Then he began a story about his father visiting Italy, and he would have gone on for a bit but his handlers broke him free and shooed everyone away.

Grazie. Grazie.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton sat at her table, sipping white wine and looking like the cat who married the canary.

At the pre-dinner VIP reception, actor Joe Mantegna (“Godfather III,” “Bugsy”) the evening’s master of ceremonies, was asked if any “Soprano” types were attending. “Well, that’s why I’m sitting with my back against the wall,” he replied with a laugh.

The event honored three sons of Italy for their distinguished careers: Italian food and wine importer Michael A. Rienzi, founder of the Rienzi Foundation For Cochlear Implant Research; lobbyist and consultant Robert E. Juliano; and Franco Nuschese, maestro of Cafe Milano in Georgetown, who flew his 84-year-old father Giuseppe in from the Amalfi Coast to attend.

And yes, the elder Mr. Nuschese confirmed (in Italian) that his son was always interested in food and entertaining.

Friends of Franco may have outnumbered Friends of Bill: there was Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt, AIDS researcher Dr. Anthony Fauci, Ann and Lloyd Hand and a gaggle of young and pretty Cafe Milano types all in black.

In between scholarship awards Mr. Nuschese (whose “world ambassador” skills were praised in a special video by Lionel Richie, Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder) gave an eloquent speech, recounting how he left home at the age of 16 to come to America to work in Las Vegas. He told the crowd that he opened Cafe Milano, his first Washington restaurant, on Nov. 3, 1992, the same day Mr. Clinton was elected. “When the first woman president takes office. I will open another restaurant,” he said. “It will be another historic occasion.”

No one clapped harder than Mr. Clinton.

— Stephanie Mansfield

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