The National Italian American Foundation gala is one of the best-known formal dinners in Washington each year. It’s talked about because of its size, its guest list, the passion of the crowd, and, well, its Italian-ness. Take the swag bag, for example. It included olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Baci chocolates, a gift certificate for tomato sauce, and a copy of the autobiography of Dion DiMucci. Who? Before there were the Beatles there was Dion, a Bronx-born doo-wop sensation and proud Italian-American.
Dion himself wasn’t among the guests at this year’s 37th annual black-tie gala at the Washington Hilton, but who could have noticed in the crush of notable Italians and Italian-Americans? Especially at the exclusive VIP reception that preceded dinner, where guests sipped California Chardonnay and a Sicilian red while they nibbled on chunks of Parmesan. Fabio canceled at the last minute, but Italian-American heartthrob and baseball all-star Mike Piazza was there, and served as the evening’s master of ceremonies. The former New York Mets catcher talked about the Nationals postseason loss of the night before, calling it “a heartbreak.” But, he added, “baseball is not fair.” Before he could say another word, he was wrapped in a bear hug by Jerry Colangelo, former owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks and the NBA Phoenix Suns; then they were joined by Geno Auriemma, head coach of the University of Connecticut’s champion women’s basketball team.
Across the packed room the Italian ambassador, Claudio Bisogniero, stood with Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata, one of the evening’s speakers. Nearby were Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito and Monsignor Peter J. Vaghi of Bethesda’s Church of the Little Flower. In another area, friends swarmed Letizia Moratti, one of the evening’s honorees for her work as president of the Friends of San Patrignano. She called herself “proud to be an Italian,” adding, “I am Italian because General Patton saved my father from the Nazi concentration camps. I love America. It is very close to all the principles I have put in my life.” She praised the American people as “young and courageous” and for having “a strong sense of social responsibility.” The fun part of the cocktail party, apart from the festive mood, was to hear so much Italian being spoken. Some guests greeted one another in English and then quickly switched to Italian, or vice versa. The vitality of the beautiful and animated language gave the party texture.
The dinner was held in the Hilton’s vast grand ballroom, which had the balsamic-esque scent of a good Italian market, thanks to the robust plate of antipasto at each place setting. When dinnertime was called, the 1,500 guests flooded into the room, but no one sat down. After all, they’d paid $500 and up for their tickets—they wanted to party. They visited with one another through repeated calls to take their seats. Piazza did finally get them to sit down, and his welcome was followed by the singing of two national anthems: the Italian National Anthem by Giada Valenti and the American anthem by Christina Carlucci, both of New York.
I was assigned to table 102, in the middle of the room, and my tablemates were all from out of town—some from New York City, some from New Jersey, and one from Florence, Italy. Patrick O’Boyle, a lawyer from North Arlington, New Jersey, who is half-Italian, had a lot on his mind, in particular wanting to slam the popular cable TV reality programs Real Housewives of New Jersey and Jersey Shore. He said they promote a not-funny caricature of Italians and he wishes they weren’t on the air. On the other hand, he was a fan of The Sopranos. Most of all, he wanted to talk about the NIAF and the affection so many Italian Americans have for the annual dinner.
When it was time to dig into the meal, I must admit to some skepticism. In such an authentically Italian atmosphere, could the Hilton kitchen produce an appropriate meal? I’ve had many banquet dinners there, typically chicken breast or a variation on surf and turf, and wondered if they would step it up for this one. They did. The antipasto included ceci beans, pickled vegetables, grilled red and yellow peppers, roasted baby eggplant, shaved prosciutto, Calabrese olives, a chunk of provolone, and fresh arugula. The pasta course was penne, served tableside and tossed in a tomato sauce. Waiters came around with bowls of shaved ricotta salata. The main course was a roasted bone-in veal chop in herbs and pepper, served with eggplant and sage pudding, cipollini onions, and green beans. The dessert was tiramisu. There were bottles of wine on the table at all times; a Gaglioppo red and a white, both from Calabria.
But what did my tablemates think of the meal? The Italian Cultural Foundation’s Gina Biancardi-Rammairone spoke up right away. “It’s the best food we’ve had at this dinner in 25 years,” she said. With that, everyone else at the table agreed, picked up their wine glasses to toast, and then continued talking and eating.