In a back room at the Washington Hilton on Saturday night, they were trying to line up 52 important Italian Americans for the march to the endless head table. The noise level -- the laughing, the gabbing, the sense of good cheer -- became overwhelming. And most Italian eyes were on actress Connie Stevens, in an explosion of black lace and bosom, who had found her way over to Joe DiMaggio. They huddled. He carefully looked straight into her face. "Shhhhhhhhhhh," said a voice from nowhere. "Could members of the dais please pay attention!" Stevens, perfumey and breathy and sweet as ever, was glowing from her moment with DiMaggio -- who was there to receive a lifetime achievement award from the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF). "Just met him," she said. "I'm a Yankees fan from way back. We talked about the Series. We talked about the American League. And we talked about hoping to get back in time to watch the game." "Connieee!" the raspy voice of actress Brenda Vaccaro called out. Vaccaro looked as frazzled as she did years ago, but somewhat heavier. She and Stevens had only Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano between them once the head-table line started to form, and on the other side of Stevens -- and her miraculous dress -- was Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda. He didn't seem unhappy about this. "Good thing they didn't put the cardinal next to Stevens," said one man to another, probably meaning Cardinal James Hickey, archbishop of Washington. "Oh," said the other, "she'd know what to say." Only designer Valentino, deeply tanned as though he'd been roasting on a sun bed for months, stood silently. He had come from Italy, also to receive a lifetime achievement award, and brought a little entourage of New York social X-rays -- including Nan Kempner and Lynn Wyatt. At this annual gala dinner of nearly 3,000 Italian Americans from all over the country, they looked like they were expecting a smaller party or at least more familiar faces. "Countess Brandolini," another of his group hesitantly identified herself. "Countess Georgina Brandolini." Later on, Valentino would put on his glasses and thank the crowd in his soft, high voice. "It was in the United States," he said, "that I first got important recognition as a designer. ... This in turn brought me fame in my own country." Even though Vice President Dan Quayle and wife Marilyn ultimately dropped by -- along with Italian President Francesco Cossiga -- it was clearly DiMaggio whom everyone wanted, everyone loved. At the mention of his name, some stood up on reflex. Earlier in the day, at an auction to raise money for the NIAF, the bidding for a baseball autographed by DiMaggio started out at $100 and sold for $2,600. Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, said, "I've been privileged to know some of the greatest figures in politics during my many years in Washington, and some of the greatest stars in the film business, but I'm proud to present to you my greatest hero of them all ... Joe DiMaggio." And the whole ballroom stood up. "You know the NIAF is important to me," said DiMaggio, "when an old broken-down center fielder leaves the first night of the World Series to be here." The score of the game was announced periodically throughout the night. Sometimes it seemed like the only thing keeping people awake. Quayle started out his speech cruelly: "Let me suggest that this is the largest gathering tonight -- anywhere -- of people not watching the World Series." No one laughed. President Cossiga spoke with a translator. He spoke for a very long time, and was so nice, so gracious, so respectful, that he had the effect of Nembutal on the crowd. "He's soooo boring," said a young Italian woman in uncertain English. "He's our president," said her friend, "you shouldn't say that." "But it's true. He's no vitality." Lasorda didn't get a chance at the microphone, but seemed occupied once Stevens began fanning herself with her program. "I haven't been this hot," said Ambassador to Italy Peter Secchia, "since Newsweek did their piece on me." Lasorda also looked hot, and thin -- since his much-publicized 35-pound weight loss. But still, food was on his mind. Earlier in the day, according to Jim Callahan, the Hilton's chief of catering, Lasorda had marched jars of tomato sauce into the huge hotel kitchen and prepared a lunch there for 16 people, including fight manager Angelo Dundee and Italian Ambassador Rinaldo Petrignani. They had pasta -- and Lasorda's own sauce, which he'll be marketing around the country -- along with Italian wine and bread. "It's pretty good sauce," said executive chef Gordon Marr. "And we had our doubts." Actor Danny Aiello, of "Do the Right Thing" and "Moonstruck," also received a lifetime achievement award, along with K mart Chairman Joseph Antonini. "I learned something tonight," Aiello said. "That you can be a great businessman and win this award. You can be a talented designer and win this award. You can be the greatest ballplayer to ever put on spikes and win this award. And you can also be an uneducated street kid from New York City and win this award." "I'm still a kid," he had said earlier. "No lifetime award winner ... I'm 51." Valenti, the evening's emcee, ran through the names on the dais: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, former ambassador Maxwell Rabb and Reps. Frank Annunzio, Leon Panetta, Romano Mazzoli and Dante Fascell. When he got to Richard Grasso, the president of the New York Stock Exchange, he said: "I'm surprised he's even here! What happened, Richard Grasso? Until Friday, I was a wealthy man." Actor Matthew Modine, from "Married to the Mob" and the upcoming "Gross Anatomy," was in the audience and was introduced by Valenti, along with AIDS researcher Robert Gallo and FBI Director William Sessions. "I think he's going to introduce everyone in the ballroom," a voice whispered. It was a long night. They all said so. "It's been, well, kind of a long night," said Aiello near the end of his sentimental speech. "It's seemed like a long night," said Panetta, the dinner chairman. "It has been a long night," said Valenti, just as it was about over. "I don't want to keep you," said DiMaggio, who was the last to receive his award. "And I want to promise you, we'll make the seventh inning." And they did.