The contributions of Brooklyn’s Italian American community were in the forefront on April 7 as the Federation of Italian-American Organizations (FIAO) celebrated its 42nd anniversary gala at El Caribe with community leaders attending to salute this year’s honorees.
Carlo Scissura, president and CEO of New York Building Congress and FIAO chair, welcomed guests to the fundraising gala. “From its early group of volunteers working out of a storefront to today’s staff of 457 and teams of volunteers working in two dozen after-school programs and in our new state-of-the-art, 44,000-square-foot Community Cultural Center, the FIAO has been a leader in creating a wide range of free programs and services that have helped the quality of lives for generations of families, youth and seniors,” said Scissura.
FIAO President Jack Spatola spoke of the impact that Italian-Americans have had on the U.S. “Italians have an imprint in the development and growth of this nation,” said Spatola. “That’s why it’s called America. So speak up for your heritage, speak up for who you are and you will be able to make an impact.”
Clergy in attendance included Msgr. David Cassato of St. Athanasius Church in Bensonhurst and Father Michael Gelfant, pastor of St. Finbar Church in Bath Beach.
Barbara Pascarella, secretary of the FIAO Board of Directors, introduced this year’s FIAO scholarship recipients: Marcella Dimino, Sophia Frasca, Antonio Lopez, Antonio Marku, Joseph Mattioli, Christopher Matzer, Joseph Montenigro, Catherine Russo and Marisa Sparacio.
Attorney Bruno Codispoti introduced the evening’s honorees: Joseph Casucci, Business Achievement Award; Salvatore Fronterre, Community Service Award; Concettina Ingravallo, Humanitarian Award; and Gelfant, who received the FIAO Man of the Year Award.
Gelfant was moved by the honor and said that he was humbled to accept the award although he felt there were others more deserving.
“The things that I do are done from the heart,” said Gelfant “‘Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.’ That quote is from the painter Vincent Van Gogh and it sums up the efforts of many and the foundation of why we gather.
“This is a celebration of Italian culture that encompasses the qualities of passion, strength, perseverance, food, faith, loud conversations, a lot of hand motions and certainly family,” he went on.
Elected officials and civic leaders attending the gala included U.S. Rep. Max Rose, state. Sen. Andrew Gounardes, Assemblymembers Peter Abbate and William Colton; and City Councilmembers Justin Brannan and Mark Treyger.
“I’m just a Jewish kid from Brooklyn. My father was a Jewish kid from Marine Park and when you grow up a Jewish kid in Brooklyn, you gotta make friends with Italians because that’s the only way you get a good plate of food at night,” said Rose to applause and laughter.
Gounardes joked that he had to make a confession that he was not an Italian-American but he was a proud Greek-American.
“Just as important as your ethnicity, your heritage, your culture is to you, it is to me because we were all raised the same way,” said Gounardes. “We were all raised in our home, all raised in our church communities, all raised in our families, so I salute the federation for all the great work you do to elevate the Italian-American culture.”
Colton praised the federation’s emphasis on family values, passion and religious. “They’re always working, helping and caring for the community,” said Colton.
“Folks it is a fact that Italians helped build America, helped build New York City, and definitely helped build Brooklyn,” said Treyger.
Brannan also elicited laughter when he said, “Don’t let the name fool you, I am Italian and I look forward to this event every year because it means March is over and I can stop pretending that I’m Irish.”
He went on to say, “It was not that long ago that we were coming to Ellis Island as Italian immigrants and now Italians are running the city, they’re running the country and that’s not something that should be taken lightly, Whether it’s education, business, politics, Italian-Americans are everywhere!”