Mario Cuomo pretended to be a waiter. Alan Alda revealed his father's recipe for tomato sauce. And yes, there was lasagna on the menu. Saturday's 15th National Italian American Foundation dinner was like a noisy family supper -- if Grandma could have squeezed 2,800 around her table.
"When two Italian Americans get together, it's a cause for a reunion -- whether they're related or not," Northwest Airlines CEO Alfred Checchi explained to the uninitiated in the Washington Hilton ballroom. "Basically, you folks have stumbled into the world's largest family reunion."
If not the largest, at least the longest. The dinner doubles as a political showcase and a chance to honor outstanding Italian Americans -- which means acceptance speeches, keynote speeches and speeches to introduce speeches.
Cuomo, favorite son and presidential question mark, was in high spirits when he arrived in the middle of the meal, throwing a napkin over his arm and pretending to serve those at the head table. He was less ebullient when he finally made it to the podium two hours later after a lengthy introduction by foundation chairman Jeno Paulucci.
"When Jeno got to that line in his wonderfully generous introduction where he said, 'Mario Cuomo represents hope,' I glanced at my watch and said, 'Yeah, hope for an end to this evening,' " said the New York governor.
And that was without speeches from the president or vice president, the first time neither attended the annual dinner in years. Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America and master of ceremonies, said President Bush was busy battling the budget.
"And Quayle is busy being on 'Mr. Mom' or whatever that program is," laughed former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro. (It's actually "Major Dad," on which Quayle is making a guest appearance Nov. 5.)
Ferraro was just one of the evening's attractions. Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello were together surrounded by thrilled fans posing for the family albums. Actor Ben Gazzara dazzled admirers by speaking perfect Italian. Rock star Jon Bon Jovi huddled in the corner. And Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia provided survival tips to get through the evening. "You think of Florence."
There were honors for Alda, Checchi, Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino and Paola Fendi, president of Fendi, who remained unruffled despite a brief protest by members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals over the company's fur fashions.
Cuomo told the audience about his father, who dug ditches in Jersey City before buying a grocery in Queens. He told them about sending out 84 re'sume's after he graduated from law school and not getting one job interview. The dean of his law school asked him if he had considered changing his name.
"Everyone here tonight understands the distance our people have come in realizing dreams that a generation ago might have seemed too remote even to speak about," he said. "Everyone here remembers mama or papa or their grandparents. ... This room is the rest of the story. We should use our history to ensure Italian Americans continue to make a difference in this country."
Alda said not enough is written about the Italian American experience. "I hope that we educate ourselves and our children and our fellow Americans about that heritage and legacy we all share," he said. "It might help us to integrate those parts of ourselves so we can still be Italian while we're being Americans."
He shared his memories: his father cooking tomato sauce on Sunday and six-hour dinners at his grandmother's house.
"If it's true that we ought to share with one another this heritage of ours, I'd like to pass on the most personal thing I can," Alda said. "My father's recipe for tomato sauce." Laughter rolled across the ballroom.
"I'm serious," he said. "Some people here are probably getting it out of a can.
"You heat some olive oil in a pan, and you put in two cloves of garlic that you cut in half. When the garlic is golden, you chop up a can of plum tomatoes and dump them in. Then you add salt and pepper and a little oregano and let it simmer for 30 minutes. In the last five minutes, add half a cup of white wine and a handful of fresh basil leaves.
"Simple and beautiful," he concluded. "Just like the folks from Abruzzi."