Standing near the doorway of the Washington Hilton's cavernous International Ballroom Saturday night, hours before President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were scheduled to appear, and just moments before they actually did, were Rep. Frank Annunzio (D-Ill.) and Jeno Paulucci.

"Look at this room," said Annunzio to Paulucci, as a sea of chiffon-swathed women and men in dark suits moved around in avid search for their tables. "There are over 2,000 people in here. You should be proud."

Paulucci, the Chinese-food and pizza magnate from Minneapolis who created the Italian American Foundation 4 1/2 years ago, looked proud. Saturday night, the foundation's third biennial dinner, was his night. Annunzio is on the foundation's board of directors.

"And I'll tell you something else," Annunzio continued, chortling as he slapped Paulucci's back, "It takes a couple of con artists like you and me to pull it off."

Pull it off, indeed. The dinner, billed as a nonpolitical, nonpartisan affair, was about as nonpolitical as a ward heeler on election eve.

The president and Reagan were there to court the Italian-American vote, making rhetorical bows to the grandeur that was Rome and the determination that was Ellis Island. Reagan took the president one further and hinted strongly during his speech that as president he would appoint an Italian-American to the Supreme Court. (The audience was pleased.)

VIPs from both parties -- Walter Mondale, former San Francisco mayor Joseph Alioto. Peter Rodino (D-N.J.), and former ambassador to Italy John Volpe among them -- sat three-deep on the crowded dais as the talismans of Michelangelo, Columbus, Dante and da Vinci were invoked. ("And just think where we politicans would be," said Carter later, "without Machiavelli.")

Notably absent from the dais was Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, the first Italian-American to fill the top job at the Justice Department. But those who knew why Civiletti wasn't there weren't telling.

Don't ask, said their lips. Ask, said their eyes.

"There's nothing strange about his [Civiletti's] not being here," said Paulucci very slowly, with a big grin. "Nothing [pause] strange [pause] at all."

"Well I don't know where Civiletti is," said someone at the head table later, disgustedly. "Someone said he's campaigning for the president in Ohio. But I'm a Democrat and I'm telling you he should have walked in here with the president tonight."

The mere seconds that separated the candidates on the original schedule had given rise to reports that Carter and Reagan would debate. That didn't happen. The two didn't even see each other. They passed instead like nervous suitors in the night.

The plan was for Carter to follow Reagan at approximately 10 p.m. And certainly neither was to appear before the antipasto. But shortly after 7:15, as guests settled into their chairs and red-jacketed waiters rattled their soup tureens outside the ballroom, Secret Service men positioned at the ballroom doorways began to blink and beep and the little wires on their heads started to quiver.

Peter Duchin's orchestra (minus Peter Duchin) struck up "Hail to the Chief," and, suddenly, there was the president, smiling and shaking hands with all those who climbed over chairs and tables to get near him.

(Ronald Reagan, who had been glimpsed in the hallway moments before, was holding a hurriedly arranged press conference on Iran in a room down the hall.The band played "This Land Is Your Land" when he walked in.)

"We don't want to be Republicans," said Joseph Alioto, before he introduced Rodino, who introduced the president. "We just want to live like them."

In his speech Carter made the most of Anthony Casamento, the Marine veteran who he'd presented with the Medal of Honor on Friday at the White House, a ceremony that was attended by about 500 Italian-Americans. Casamento, who had lobbied the government for years to have the medal, sat on the dais and took it all in.

The president made analogies between Southerners and Italians, saying that both groups have been victimized by "cruel stereotypes," and he repeatedly lauded the pride, ambition and success of the Italian immigrants.

("At $100 a plate, you'd better believe these people are successful," said a man in the audience to his dinner companions, who nodded as they nibbled hungrily at breadsticks.)

The president, it must be noted, read his entire speech without once saying "Eye-talian," a pronunciation that earned him unwelcome distinction in 1976.

The antipasto failed to appear, and just moments after Carter's exit, Ronald and Nancy Reagan made an entrance to applause warmer than that accorded the president.

"Don't put your foot in your mouth this time," shouted someone cheerfully from the back of the room, apparently alluding to an interview last week in which Reagan was quoted as saying, in a reference to Carter's inner circle, that he would nor surround himself with "any little local mafia" once in the White House.

By the time Reagan spoke, the audience was quite receptive, dinner and spirits having been consumed by then. He, too, praised the audience for their devotion to family, religion and hard work. And then, in a masterly stroke, won the audience over with a story about John Volpe's family, a story studded with references to courage, battered suitcases on New York docks and sacrifice.

"To those who say that the dream is finished," said Reagan in his deep, soothing voice, "I say, talk to millions of Italian-Americans who know that the dream is still alive."

"You know," said Louis Rosa, a Democrat from New Jersey, "it's funny, but just as he told that story I was thinking about my own family. Good speech. I think he hit it right on the mark." Several others at his table agreed.

But not everyone was pleased. Some were still smarting from Reagan's use of the word "mafia" that evening as he spoke about unfair stereotypes.

"You know, he used that word earlier in the week . . ." said Bernard Bellario, a Democrat from Chicago.

What word?

"You know what word."

Mafia?

"You said it, I didn't."