It's a good thing President Bush didn't attend Saturday's National Italian American Foundation gala. He would have been upstaged by Robert De Niro and Sophia Loren.
The evening was a chaotic lovefest for the Italian American actor and Italian actress, with a cheering crowd, pushy press scrum and kisses all around.
The 27th annual dinner at the Hilton Washington honored prominent Italian Americans while raising money to support the group's many scholarships. Sitting presidents usually attend the dinner, but Bush has had other engagements the past two years. Members of the administration were there, however, including Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, who is not Italian, but presented an award for achievement in business to Home Depot Chairman Robert Nardelli.
"It was a thrill that he asked me to join him," Ridge said of his old friend. "It's tough to get past Sophia Loren. I enjoyed just the brief introduction."
The glamorous 68-year-old screen siren wore a ruffled organza Armani gown in pale orange that seemed lighter than air. Loren, who grew up impoverished and is the only woman to win the Best Actress Oscar for a foreign-language film, Saturday night became the first non-American inducted into the Italian American Foundation's Hall of Fame.
"I'm very proud of myself, very proud," Loren said before floating away on the arm of Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti.
Valenti allowed Loren much more time with the press than Robert De Niro's publicist did with his charge, and she handled it with aplomb. De Niro, the entertainment honoree, just rushed in and out for photos. He also had few words for the adoring dinner crowd: "The problem with accepting this kind of award is that it's usually at the end of the evening and everyone's tired so I'll make this short," said the Oscar-winning actor. "I love Sophia Loren." The audience cheered.
After his remarks, De Niro headed across the dais toward Loren, and they embraced around Italian Senate President Marcello Pera, who was seated next to Loren. Photographers cried for a picture, and the two actors tried to pose in vain before Pera realized he had to move from between them. When they were repositioned, Loren held both men's arms. The politician had earlier spoken of the "remarkable personalities of tonight's honorees, among them Sophia Loren, who is my favorite star, and Bob De Niro, who is my wife's favorite star." After the photo, she kissed each man on both cheeks. Pera and De Niro beamed, and the crowd cheered.
This dinner is known for its better-than-usual hotel banquet fare, but Saturday it must have been the plentiful Italian wine that kept the crowd warm and happy. The meal, featuring the flavors of the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region, included a fine prosciutto, a pasta in duck ragout that probably was delicious when warm, and a cold veal chop with rock-solid polenta that tasted like bad grits. But who can blame a hotel serving a mobile crowd of more than 3,000? Reporters couldn't move through the hall any better than the waiters could.
This led to some frustration by the program's end. As reporters and television cameras gathered by the stairs at the end of the dais to catch anyone who might say a few words, a scuffle broke out between a strapping Italian journalist and hotel security. "Why did you push me? Just don't push me!" cried out the journalist, pushing back. "Well, don't try to come up here!" replied security, holding him back. Doris Roberts of "Everybody Loves Raymond" chose that moment to step onto the stairs. But she proclaimed the evening "fabulous" nonetheless.
Indeed, as CNBC's Ron Insana, the master of ceremonies, declared: "This is one of those nights when we feel like we've died and gone to Italian Heaven."
In addition to Nardelli, De Niro and Loren, the event honored Sony Music Chairman Tommy Mottola, Saks Fifth Avenue Chief Executive Christina Johnson and Electronic Data Systems Vice Chairman Paul Chiapparone. Yogi Berra, Brian Boitano, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Bruno Sammartino, Michael Badalucco and Phil Rizzuto, among others, joined them on the dais. Tony Bennett sang in honor of Loren, crediting her for the fact that "not just Americans, but every nationality in the world goes on vacation to Italy in the summer." She kissed him, too.
Foundation Vice Chairman Ken Ciongoli, a Burlington, Vt., neurologist who was savoring the atmosphere at the post-party dessert reception, acknowledged that there was love in the air. "When I come here I'm thrilled with the body contact. Everyone hugs me and kisses me and pinches me. It recharges my batteries."
A few years ago, he continued, "when Sinatra was here, he said, 'I'm going to talk about my mother,' and tears ran down his cheeks and he did not say anything for three minutes. . . . Tonight every one of these guys looked to Heaven and said, 'Thank you, mom.' We're tied to mother, father, children, for life. From birth to death, we're connected to people, not to things."
As Loren said, when she stepped up to the podium -- after giving Valenti a kiss -- and gazed out at the crowd: "I could cry right away."