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At Italian American Gala, A Salute to Signora Robinson

By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 22, 2006

Thousands turned out last night to induct Anna Maria Italiano into the Italian American Hall of Fame.

You know her as Anne Bancroft. Or maybe as Mrs. Robinson.

Presenting her, posthumously, with this honor was Alphonso D'Abruzzo -- though you know him as Alan Alda.

But, walking into the VIP room at the National Italian American Foundation's Gala at the Hilton Washington, was the night's glamour quotient: Hollywood starlet Anne Hathaway.

She is not Italian. But her boyfriend, Raffaello Follieri, is. He's the chairman and CEO of Follieri Yucaipa Investments. He looks dashingly young, his hands are noticeably lotion-soft, he's here to receive the Special Achievement Award for Humanitarian Service, and his publicist was very concerned that anyone who interviews the couple will be sure to ask him a question, too -- especially about the award.

So he was asked.

"I'm very proud," Follieri answered in a rolling Italian accent. "I'm glad Annie is here with me."

He looked adoringly at the "Princess Diaries" beauty -- and the "Devil Wears Prada" anti-fashionista -- standing beside him. Hathaway appeared bored: She'd already stopped sucking in her tummy, and her pantyhose now cut a deep stripe across the waist of her beaded gown. She quit fidgeting with the bra straps under her gown long enough to give him a look.

"I'm not supposed to say 'Annie'?" he asked.

"You're not supposed to say the other name," she said quickly.

The other name?

"I'm not?" he asked.

There's another name? Hmm. The mind reels. This was the first interesting thing to happen here in the VIP room since Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito -- who was being honored with a Special Achievement Award for Public Service -- showed up at exactly 6 p.m. It was an impressive but unfashionably on-time arrival that required him to spend seemingly endless, lonely minutes downing clear liquid from a tall glass with a lime, surrounded by absolutely no one.

So -- the couple were asked -- what's the other name?

"Anne," Anne Hathaway said flatly.

But that's her name.

"It's the professional name," she clarified. "We're not professional with each other." Then she asked where the ladies' room was and left, only to be anxiously queried after by the publicist: "Where'd she go?"

"She went to the bathroom," Follieri answered.

"I think it's far away," the publicist worried. Someone might see her and talk to her. "Do you want me to go to her?" Follieri dispatched the publicist.

Across the room, Tom LaSorda, president and CEO of the Chrysler Group (and recipient of NIAF's Special Achievement Award in Business) was leaning toward baseball legend Tommy Lasorda and crowing, "Paisano!"

"How are you, Tom!" Lasorda interrupted his conversation with Alda and Alito -- who seemed grateful to finally have someone to talk to -- then turned back to them. "His family comes five minutes from where our family comes from."

The Alitos' charming but somewhat painful early arrival was due, he said, to the fact that "we've had a spell of rushing and being late . . . so today I said, I'm going to be on time."

And while Alito is very Italian -- his father's name was Salvatore Alati, which got Americanized in New Jersey to Samuel Alito -- and while his wife is German, their personalities are reversed, he said. She is much more Mediterranean. And he is much "more the rules follower."

But, his wife pointed out and he agreed, she is the family's timekeeper.

"Punctuality is my forte," Martha-Ann Alito preened, looking glamorous in a slate-blue beaded dress.

"Please," said the couple's 18-year-old daughter, Laura Alito.

"I think we might challenge that," agreed the Alitos' son, Philip, who is 20.

Martha-Ann Alito gave her children a look.

"We're just kidding," Philip Alito said. "Sort of."

"With the exception of your state swim meet," Martha-Ann Alito told Laura. And the subject dropped.

For the past 31 years, this black-tie affair has drawn huge crowds to celebrate the achievements of Italian Americans and to eat divine Italian food. Last night's menu was no chicken-and-broccoli affair. Dinner began with an antipasto platter, then a course of assorted breads with roasted-garlic olive oil and balsamic vinegar, followed by porcini-dust-crusted veal chop with a wine sauce, and a dessert buffet.

Past honorees and invited guests include Luciano Pavarotti, Sophia Loren, Tim McGraw, Robert De Niro, Lee Iacocca, Giorgio Armani, Roberto Benigni, Al Pacino, Andrea Bocelli, Nicolas Cage, Yogi Berra, Tony Bennett, Joe Montana, John Travolta, and Paul Tagliabue.

Two years ago, country star McGraw took home an award -- his mom was born Betty D'Agostino.

Bancroft's husband of 41 years, Mel Brooks, accepted the award on her behalf. The Oscar-winning actress died last year of cancer.

"Of course, I'm heartbroken," he said before the gala began. "I wish she could enjoy it."

Peeking out of his tuxedo pocket was a stripe of red that turned out to be a gift from Alda's wife -- a tie decorated with musical notes, in honor of the Broadway musical "Young Frankenstein," whose songs and half the book he is writing.

The show goes on.

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