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. …