A cowboy-hat wearin' country-music star like Tim McGraw being honored at the National Italian-American Foundation Gala may seem as odd as a spaghetti western in Washington. But keep in mind that Muhammad Ali was the special honoree four years ago, and a year later Christopher Reeve.
These honors don't always go to a 100-percent, mamma mia sons and daughters of Italy. Sometimes Italianesque passion or accomplishments are enough.
"No, there is no definite 'how much Italian' you have to be," said NIAF Chairman Frank Guarini, defending the Italian American Foundation's right to honor whomever it pleases, though galas past have seen far more vowel-ending names such as Sinatra, DiMaggio, Rosellini, Armani, Bocelli and Benigni than McGraw. "The question is, how do you view yourself?"
Besides, McGraw's part Italian. "My mother's family is Italian," McGraw said at the invitation-only party, held in the cozy Cabinet Room near the Hilton Washington's International Ballroom.
Strange as an Old Country McGraw might seem, stranger still was McGraw without his trademark cowboy hat and fancied up in a black tuxedo. "It's gone tonight," he said sadly of his headgear, adding that his band, the Dancehall Doctors, weren't there either. But standing by her man throughout the reception was McGraw's wife, singer Faith Hill, looking immaculate in a black gown.
"I brought my mother," McGraw added. Nearby his mom, Betty Trimble, was telling any one who asked that her maiden name is D'Agostino. The family? It originated in Bologna and Naples.
As the evening's celebrities schmoozed over cocktails before filing to the head table onstage, about 3,000 other guests milled by to 300 tables set with white tablecloths, flowers and wine.
Across the room, a throng of admirers circled Yankees legend and Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who opted for this "deja vu all over again" party instead of the third game of the American League Championships about to get underway at Fenway Park.
"I don't go on the road, but I hope we win," Berra said about not being in Beantown for the game. "It's not over yet."
Berra looks like he could still get down behind home plate and catch a few innings. "No-o-o-o," he said, "I could get down but I couldn't get back up."
CNBC anchor Ron Insana, who until this year has hosted five straight NIAF galas, said he was "dragged kicking and screaming" from the podium to make way for new emcee Tony Danza. "Just joking," said Insana. "I'm very happy to have Tony do it."
But most conversations turned on Italian roots. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said, "I'm 100 percent Italian," adding that "I think it's appropriate to be here."
Patricia de Stacy Harrison, acting undersecretary of state, said that especially here in the nation's capital, an event like this reminds you of what's important: "Family and food. It makes you feel great!"
In past presidential election years, the NIAF gala's roster of movers and shakers has been a candidate magnet for corraling the Italian American vote. But the last president to swing by was Bill Clinton, and that was in 2000. President Bush has yet to make an appearance. And John Kerry didn't see this as a swing-vote event -- though one of every 10 Americans has some Italian blood in his or her veins.
"I look forward to next year when President Kerry can attend the event," said Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano.
This black-tie gala for 29 years has brought out a large crowd to celebrate achievements of famous and lesser-known Italian Americans. Sensitive to the decades-long portrayal of Italians as thugs and mobsters, Italian American groups, including the NIAF, last week called for a boycott of Steven Spielberg and Robert De Niro's new movie, "Shark Tale," an animated feature that portrays gangster fish with Italian names.
"We condemn De Niro and Spielberg for participating in 'Shark Tale,' " said Guarini. "Because 'Shark Tale' is a cartoon, it makes a deep impression on children."
Other notable guests included CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo; Italy's foreign affairs minister Franco Frattini; Barbara Sinatra, wife of the late singer; former Motion Picture Association of America head Jack Valenti; Italy's Ambassador to the U.S. Sergio Vento; retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni; NFL legend Franco Harris; and prolific Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini.
In the ballroom, the program sprang to life with the Italian national anthem followed by "The Star-Spangled Banner," both sung in operatic fashion by NIAF scholarship recipient Roberto Iarussi, who admitted it wasn't easy performing before the maestro Luciano Pavarotti.
During the dinner, Danza moved the program in his clunky comedic fashion, beginning by pointing out the Italian heritage in evidence throughout the gigantic room: "There a lot of great Italians here tonight. Secretary of State Colin Powellini is here! And the incredible entertainer Tim McGrawini is here!"
The surprise of the evening was Powell's impassioned speech about growing up in the Bronx and learning poker from an Italian shoemaker named Sammy. He ended by thanking Italy and Italians for being "steadfast partners in the cause of freedom," helping to fight terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq. "We don't forget our friends," he said.
When Berra stood to introduce the star of the evening, McGraw, eyes glistened as he spoke of Tug McGraw, the Philadelphia pitcher and Tim's father, who died earlier this year. Choking up, the old Yankees catcher said, "I feel bad. My wish is that your daddy was here to to present this to you himself."
In the end, however, it was just Pavarotti, here to be inducted into NIAF's Italian American Hall of Fame in Music. The audience hoped he would loosen up his magnificent voice and hit a high C one more time in the wake of his retirement, which he announced in March at a production of "Tosca" in New York.
But Pavarotti, whose 69th birthday was Tuesday, wouldn't be singing anything but gratitude this night. The tenor stood humbled and emotional before the audience. "Being a night of crying, I will try to avoid that," he said. ". . . I have dedicated my career to make people happy."
And one more time, he did -- without singing a word.