Alfonse D'Amato still credits his mother for giving his long shot 1980 U.S. Senate campaign the boost it needed.
Antoinette "Mamma" D'Amato appeared in a commercial, carrying a bag of groceries into her Island Park home as she railed against inflation. "Vote for my son Al," she said. "He'll be a good senator."
The ad -- and six weeks of subsequent campaigning by his mother across New York -- helped transform D'Amato's image from a backroom political grappler from the Town of Hempstead to an advocate for the middle class, propelling him to the first of three Senate victories.
"Without her, I would not have been elected," D'Amato, 76, recalled yesterday as his 4-year-old son, Alfonso, and 6-year-old daughter, Luciana, bounced on his lap. "She absolutely made the difference."
Four generations of the family were on hand as Mamma D'Amato celebrated her 99th birthday in her longtime home.
The plain-spoken matriarch became a minor celebrity because of her son. She was frequently interviewed during his campaigns, but also wrote two cookbooks and once dined with President Ronald Reagan in Little Italy.
For decades, the family home has played host to a who's who of power and celebrity. Then-New York Mayor Ed Koch, radio host Howard Stern and future Vice President Joe Biden, who sent a letter with birthday wishes to Mama D'Amato this week, would stop by once a year for an oversized plate of her famous lasagna.
"Mama's cooking swept aside party politics," Alfonse D'Amato said.
Armand D'Amato, the senator's younger brother, described his mother as a friend, a sounding board and a "fighter who was not afraid to speak her mind."
Mamma D'Amato's long and healthy life, which family members attribute to a balanced diet and a glass of red wine daily, doesn't come as much of a surprise to her children. Her late husband, Armand, lived to 97 before passing in 2010. They had three children, and Mamma D'Amato now boasts of 11 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.
"She's our mainstay; our rock," Alfonse D'Amato said. "Anything we've achieved came as a result of Mom and the upbringing she gave us."