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White House state dinner: Batali’s pasta, 2016 politics to chew on

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President Barack Obama hosts Italy's prime minister

It is Obama's final state dinner before he leaves office

Washington CNN —  

President Barack Obama’s final State Dinner Tuesday was a swirl of dolce vita diplomacy, Italian designer gowns and plates of Mario Batali pasta easing a bittersweet end to one of the presidency’s best perks.

The dinner marked an final moment for Obama to deploy the lavish displays of friendship afforded the US commander-in-chief. But it also symbolized an end to the stylish, celebrity-friendly era of presidential entertaining the Obamas ushered in eight years ago.

Speaking Tuesday morning, Obama said he had “saved the best for last” in extending the most formal of Washington invites to Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Planning the event, the White House embraced the opportunity to go large, inviting more guests than any of Obama’s previous 12 events and serving a meal oozing with continental flair.

Even first lady Michelle Obama embraced the “go big or go home” attitude, striding out of the White House North Portico Tuesday wearing a figure-hugging Atelier Versace gown made entirely of rose gold chainmail. The dress appeared to spark as cameras flashed.

The evening was a rare moment of refinement in an otherwise crude election season that’s occupied Washington. Even the mud slinging wasn’t far from Obama’s mind during a dinner toast.

“Tonight, we’re reminded that American democracy has been graced by the touch of Italy,” Obama said. “We look at the dome of the US Capitol and marvel at the touch of Brumidi. Yet some days our presidential campaigns can seem like Dante’s Inferno.”

Renzi, too, made certain the presidential contest wasn’t far from mind. Joking that when Obama leaves office he could visit Florence and compare the White House garden tomatoes to those grown in Italy, Renzi turned his focus to the first lady, who delivered a speech last week denouncing Trump’s sexually aggressive remarks.

“Michelle, after last week let me be frank – your speeches are better than your tomatoes,” he said. “Thank you so much, as prime minister but also as father of a small daughter.”

Tuesday’s dinner had political undertones from the start. When guests arrived they were greeted by a group of acapella singers from a non-profit organization backed by Rosie O’Donnell, whom Donald Trump has spent the last decade maligning. And Renzi, the guest of honor, has openly backed Hillary Clinton in November’s contest.

And there’s little secret that White Houses past and present have rewarded donors and like-minded politicians with coveted invites to state dinners, meaning conversation around the pink-draped tables Tuesday wasn’t likely be favorable to Trump. Among the prominent Democrats invited: House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

But even among a pro-Clinton crowd, few could imagine the same mix of Hollywood and Washington the Obamas have attracted during their time in office, even if another Democrat wins.

“I don’t know when glamour’s going to be ever back in the White House,” said fashion designer Naeem Khan, who dressed Michelle Obama for her first state dinner in 2009.

Indeed, many guests had a hard time imagining the choices a President Donald Trump, or a first lady Melania, might make for a formal White House event.