WASHINGTON – President Obama on Tuesday used one of the largest state dinners of his tenure to honor Italy, a European ally and its leader who stand with the United States on a range of confounding world issues.
The soiree for Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was the 13th and final state dinner for Obama, who leaves office in January. “Bittersweet” was the word several guests chose to describe the evening.
Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., said it’s “a little sad” that it’s Obama’s last state dinner. But to make the occasion even more memorable, he said: “For tonight only, I pronounce my name ‘Canoli,’ not ‘Connolly.”
Johnny Wright, who styles Michelle Obama’s hair, also described the moment as “bittersweet,” but he, too, was excited to have been invited.
Others, meanwhile, sought to inject a little levity into the evening.
“We’re Jews, but we identify as Italian,” joked comedian Jerry Seinfeld. By way of explaining why the Obamas may have invited him and his wife, Jessica, Seinfeld said they spend a lot of time traveling in Italy “and we almost exclusively go out for Italian food, but that’s as far as I can figure.”
Obama appeared on a recent episode of Seinfeld’s online program “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” and they took turns circling the South Lawn in a 1963 Corvette Stingray split window coupe.
And after tripping climbing stairs and getting a pair of scissors to cut out the lining of her dress, celebrity chef Rachael Ray joked that “I should only come here in sneakers.” Ray has done numerous events with the White House to support the first lady’s “Let’s Move” anti-childhood obesity initiative.
Other guests included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the highest-ranking Italian American in U.S. politics, and her husband, Paul Pelosi. Others guests of Italian heritage included former race car driver Mario Andretti, who sported socks designed like a checkered racing flag; fashion designer Giorgio Armani; actor John Turturro; and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Once again, Mrs. Obama didn’t disappoint, dazzling by wearing what the White House described as a rose gold chainmail gown by Italian designer Versace. Other women also went Italian in their choice of attire, clothing themselves in designs by Valentino, Robert Cavalli and others.
Celebrity chef Mario Batali was invited to help the White House kitchen crew prepare the meal, and Grammy Award-winning pop singer Gwen Stefani was on tap to perform after the tables were cleared. Not only did Batali collaborate on dinner, he was also invited to attend as a guest.
And a few guests said they were most looking forward to eating his food, including fellow cook Sandra Lee, Cuomo’s partner.
The menu was designed to showcase traditional Italian dishes that are familiar to Americans and were made with ingredients pulled from Mrs. Obama’s garden during this month’s final harvest.
Batali, executive chef Cristeta Comerford and pastry chef Susie Morrison settled on a menu of sweet potato ravioli with browned butter and sage, warm butternut squash salad and beef pinwheels, an Italian classic, served with broccoli rabe. Dessert is a green apple crostata, or Italian tart, served with buttermilk gelato, or Italian ice cream.
“It’s such an incredibly, well-orchestrated thing, but you have to get the food out superfast,” Rick Bayless, one of the country’s most respected voices when it comes to Mexican food, said in an interview from one of his Chicago restaurants. Bayless is friends with the Obamas and, in 2009, they enlisted him as “guest chef” for a 200-person White House state dinner for Mexico.
Batali, a restaurant owner, cookbook author and authority on Italian cuisine, seemed to have things under control by midday Tuesday.
His very active Twitter page featured near hourly postings, including photos of him with the four chefs who accompanied him from New York, of him on the presidential basketball court sporting his signature pair of orange Crocs, of him with Obama dogs Bo and Sunny, and of dinner ingredients in various stages of preparation, including a close-up of the almost-ready beef pinwheels.
Obama has held 13 state dinners during nearly eight years in office, two more than President George W. Bush, who held 11, but fewer than other recent predecessors, according to the White House Historical Association. President Bill Clinton far exceeded both of his successors with 28 dinners during his two terms in office.