Sunday, October 22, 2006

It was all amore and more amore at Saturday’s National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) gala at the Washington Hilton, the only venue in town that can host 3,000 people for a sit-down dinner.

It was a huge “famiglia” affair as well. After all, everyone knew everyone else, grew up in the same neighborhoods and wanted photos taken with their favorite Italian-American celebrities.

The evening began with award recipients and other distinguished guests making an entrance right out of the movies — down the red carpet onto the stage, the head table set for a medieval type feast facing the rest of the massive ballroom.

There was a military honor guard and fife-and-drum corps and the Italian national anthem sung by Sgt. 1st Class Antonio Giuliano (with the audience joining in). You could sense the waiters eyeing the glassware when Adrianna Sgarlata, the current Miss Virginia, sang the high notes in the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican’s nuncio (ambassador) to the U.S., gave the invocation, calling on all present to rededicate themselves, their resources and their talents to help those in need before guests dined on antipasti, assorted breads, porcini-encrusted veal and a dessert buffet.

Special guest Clemente Masella, minister of the Italian judiciary, quipped in Italian that he spoke on behalf of the Italian people and would have appreciated doing so on behalf of the pope as well, but alas, “I do not speak German.”

Los Angeles Dodger legend Tommy Lasorda presented a special achievement award to his son Tom LaSorda, president and chief executive officer of the Chrysler Group. Businessman Raffaello Follieri, whose main squeeze is actress Anne Hathaway, also received a humanitarian award for his generous contributions to the health and welfare of underprivileged children needing hepatitis-A vaccine in Nicaragua.

Special education and cultural affairs awardee Catherine B. Reynolds, whose father was an Italian Catholic and whose American mother was a Baptist, remembered with affection her mother claiming that the Rev. Billy Graham would have made a great pope. Her father, she noted, thought “fire and brimstone” was a pizza parlor on Manhattan’s West Side.

The love fest spilled over the top for the late Anne Bancroft, born Anna Maria Louisa Italiano. Fellow Italian American Alphonso D’Abruzzo (Alan Alda) gave a moving tribute before Miss Bancroft’s husband, director Mel Brooks, accepted the honor of her induction into NIAF’s hall of fame.

Noting that he had been told to be short, Mr. Brooks, ever the joker, cracked that the organizers had “confused me with Jack Valenti.”

Justice Antonin Scalia presented the special achievement award for public service to his new colleague on the Supreme Court, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. He reminded the crowd that he had received the award 20 years earlier and joked that they could now share the burden of attending all the major Italian-American events in the country.

Finally there was Frankie Valli (attending with his twin sons, Brando and Emilio) who recalled breaking the news to his father that he wanted to be singer like Frank Sinatra. “What kind of work is that?” his father asked.

Very good work as it turned out — for Mr. Valli anyway, who, like the assembled thousands, said he was proud to be Italian American and planned to continue the good work of giving back.

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