Fabio, the famous Italian hunk, hung around at the 24th annual National Italian American Foundation awards dinner at the Washington Hilton on Saturday night, picking up women.

Literally.

Women flocked to the man whose square jaw, long blond mane and muscular chest decorate the covers of countless romance novels. They hovered around him like bees around a blossom. Occasionally, one would whisper something in his ear and he'd reach over, effortlessly pick her up and cradle her in his arms, smiling broadly, while somebody snapped a picture.

"A woman should feel like a woman, and sometimes you have to do a little something extra to make them feel like a woman," he explained. "I picked up a woman one time who weighed 300 pounds. I keep myself in good shape."

At one point, Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.) walked over to Fabio and remarked that every time she saw him, he was being mobbed by women.

"It's hard work," he said, grinning, "but somebody's got to do it."

He did not pick up the congresswoman. Nor did she ask to be picked up.

Fabio wasn't the only famous babe-magnet at the dinner. President Clinton appeared, too. But he did not pick up any women, literally or figuratively, perhaps because he was accompanied by his wife. The first lady is pondering a run for the Senate next year against New York's Italian American Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who did not attend the dinner, although he'd been invited. Nobody in the room discussed the race--at least not publicly.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, the president praised Italian Americans: "Your work ethic, your family ethic and your compassion have made America a better place." He also reminded the crowd of 3,000 that two of the four men who have served as his chief of staff are Italian Americans--Leon Panetta and John Podesta. "And the other two wish they were," he added.

The Clintons left before dinner, which might have been a mistake. The food was fabulous--an antipasto of fresh mozzarella and prosciutto, a spicy seafood cioppino soup and lamb chops perched atop Alfredo noodle cake, all of it washed down with good Italian wines.

At one point during dinner, actor Ray Romano appeared on the room's four huge video screens to urge the people to boogie down: "You're Italian. Do a chicken dance. Let loose."

That got a laugh, but nobody did any dancing, chicken or otherwise. They couldn't. There was no room. The Hilton's International Ballroom, which is as big as a football field, was packed with 3,000 people. They'd paid $350 a plate--the money going to the foundation's college scholarship fund.

The women in the crowd were resplendent in glorious dresses of every conceivable style and color. The men, in contrast, were all attired in nearly identical black-and-white tuxedos. This made the room look a bit like a convention of 1,500 headwaiters and the women who love them.

"For those of you in the back," said CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo, who was emceeing the event, "I am not Jack Valenti."

Valenti, the Motion Picture Association of America chairman, usually emcees these dinners, but this year Bartiromo got the nod because Valenti was one of the honorees, receiving the foundation's lifetime achievement award for public service.

Other awards went to Massimo Ferragamo, the shoe baron; Ronald Zarrella, executive vice president of General Motors Corp.; Patricia Russo, executive vice president of Lucent Technologies; Frederic Salerno, senior executive vice president of Bell Atlantic; Frank Stella, the foundation's former chairman; and Matt LeBlanc, the actor who plays Joey Trebbiani on the TV sitcom "Friends."

Earlier in the day, LeBlanc and his Italian American mother were given a personal tour of the White House by the president. "My mom was pretty impressed," he said. "I was really floored. I just shut my mouth and listened to him."

After receiving his award, LeBlanc introduced his mother to the crowd. "Italian moms are just the best," he said.

Nobody disputed him.

CAPTION: International heartthrob Fabio scoops up WASH-FM's Kim Burton at Saturday's Italian American Foundation dinner at the Washington Hilton.

CAPTION: Among Saturday's partygoers were, clockwise from above, Joan Collins; Ambassador Ferdinando Salleo, left, with Massimo Ferragamo and his wife, Chiara; and Rep. Frank Annunzio (D-Ill.), left, with White House Chief of Staff John Podesta.