A taste of Italy for wounded U.S. servicemembers

Ambassador opens embassy doors to vets from military hospitals

By LISA BURGESS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 21, 2006

ARLINGTON, Va. — Grazie, Italia. You have fulfilled the wish of American Sgt. Timothy Gustafson.

“Now I can say I’ve eaten real Italian lasagna,” Gustafson, a Tennessee National Guardsman, said Friday night at the Italian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Gustafson, forward observer for the 278th Regimental Combat Team, lost a lower leg when an improvised explosive device exploded beneath his Humvee during a patrol in eastern Diyala province in western Iraq in January 2005.

He and a friend spent a few minutes Friday night debating the secret ingredient that made the Italian Embassy lasagna so good.

Gustafson ultimately decided it was the fresh tomatoes in place of tomato sauce.

“But whatever it is, it’s delicious,” he said.

Gustafson was one of 27 wounded veterans from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Md., attending the Friday dinner at the embassy along with family members.

The Friday dinners are a two-year-old tradition started by Hal Koster, co-owner of the Fran O’Brien’s Stadium Steak House in Washington, and his friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, Jim Mayer.

The Italian Ambassador, Gianni Castellaneta, and his wife, Lila, heard about Fran O’Brien’s dinners through an Italian sponsor and offered to have the wounded servicemembers over to the embassy at some point as well, according to Shoshana Bryen, a member of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, another sponsor.

After Fran O’Brien’s lost its lease at the Hilton Hotel in Washington, the Italian ambassador and his wife decided to make good on their plans to welcome the wounded veterans, Bryen said Friday night.

“They have turned themselves inside out to be helpful,” Bryen said.

Bryen added that another hotel in downtown Washington, the Crowne Plaza at 14th and K streets, has since committed to continuing to holding the Friday dinners for wounded veterans. They have held two dinners so far since Fran O’Brien’s closed.

The entire Italian diplomatic corps, including a cadre of military attachés, lined up to greet their guests as the buses ferrying the veterans and family members from the hospitals rumbled up to the award-winning building, a modern Italian design that resembles a Tuscan fortress.

Walking through the reception line, the veterans marveled at the enormous reception room, which includes a center space like that of a classic Italian piazza, a soaring, three-story glass-roofed atrium and life-size 15th-century Renaissance art on the walls.

But inevitably, the room’s magnets were the bar, with its bottle after bottle of fine Italian wine, and the abundant buffet where the lasagna was surrounded by fresh morsels of mozzarella cheese, a tasty beef ragout, pork roast and, for dessert, Italy’s famous tiramisu, a luscious, creamy pudding with chocolate, ricotta cheese and espresso.

The food was the pride of the Italian Embassy’s executive chef, Roberto Grazioli, who was just out of sight in kitchen.

The 38-year-old chef from Montova, Italy, said he made the entire menu “by hand,” adding a bit of butter to a huge pot of fresh pasta.

“When I cook, I think like I am [going to be] at the table, and I put my heart into it,” Grazioli said, stirring vigorously.

After dinner, the guests were entertained by tenor Sgt. 1st Class Antonio Giuliano and two pianists, Master Sgt. Joseph Holt and Sgt. Maj. Tony Walker, all from the Army Band Pershing’s Own.

In one of his numbers, Giuliano sang a tender Italian lullaby as he cradled Marshall Valle, the 1-month-old son of Sgt. Christian Valle and wife Blanca.

Marshall spit up.

But his dad, an Army Reserve infantryman who lost most of a leg in an IED attack in Balad, Iraq, on Oct. 23, 2005, later noted that Marshall soiled his own brown puppy bib, not Giuliano’s dress uniform.

“Yeah, he’s a good boy,” Valle said.

Italian Ambassador to the U.S. Gianni Castellaneta and his wife, Lila, talk with Sgt. Neil Duncan, right, of Minneapolis, Minn., and Spc. Rob Lliteras of Tampa, Fla., during a dinner Friday night for wounded U.S. servicemembers at the Italian Embassy in Washington, D.C. for more photos from the event.

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