Antoinette "Mama" D'Amato, whose appearance in a 1980 television commercial is often credited with helping her son Alfonse win a long-shot race for the U.S. Senate, died Thursday night at her home in Island Park. She was 99.
The plain-spoken family matriarch became a minor celebrity as she campaigned around the state for her son, a former Hempstead Town supervisor, who served three terms in the Senate before losing to Democrat Charles Schumer in 1998.
She was frequently interviewed during his campaigns, but also wrote two cookbooks and once dined with President Ronald Reagan in Little Italy.
"She was a woman of incredible strength and courage, reminiscent of the Greatest Generation" Alfonse D'Amato said Friday. "She had a deep love of family and sacrificed everything for us."
D'Amato said his mother's television commercial -- and her six weeks of subsequent campaigning -- helped him defeat Democrat Elizabeth Holtzman to win his first Senate race.
In the ad, she carried 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."
Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said the commercial softened D'Amato's image as a "combative political street fighter" and helped him win over older suburban women who leaned Democratic.
"Mama D'Amato may have saved her son's candidacy," Levy said. "It allowed him to be seen in a softer light than he was portrayed by his political opponents."
Antoinette D'Amato was born Feb. 22, 1915, in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, the second of three children, and graduated from Girls High School in Bedford Stuyvesant.
In 1935, she married Armand D'Amato and the couple bought a small home on Ostend Avenue in Island Park where they raised three children: Alfonse, Armand Jr. and Joanne.
During World War II, she worked in a factory, soldering materials for the U.S. military. D'Amato later worked as a seamstress and as a secretary in her husband's Rockville Centre insurance business. Armand D'Amato Sr. died in 2010 at the age of 97.
Prominent politicians and celebrities frequently visited the family's Island Park home.
New York City Mayor Ed Koch, radio host Howard Stern and U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, now vice president, stopped by once a year for lasagna -- a dish she popularized in her 1997 cookbook, "Cooking and Canning With Mama D'Amato."
Armand D'Amato Jr., who served as his mother's primary caregiver over the past five years, said he will miss her companionship and acts of kindness.
"She will leave a big void in my life," he said. "She was fearless and always protective of us."
In February, four generations of the D'Amato family gathered at Antoinette D'Amato's home to celebrate her 99th birthday. Biden sent a letter with birthday wishes.
Last month, she fell getting out of bed and suffered a head injury that left her weakened, family members said.
D'Amato is survived by her three children, 13 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.
A viewing will be held Saturday from 7 to 9 p.m. and Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. and from 7 to 9 p.m. at Sacred Heart Parish Center, 301 Long Beach Rd., Island Park.
A funeral Mass is scheduled for 10:15 a.m. Monday at Sacred Heart Church, Island Park.