By Gretchen McKay

Sauce fundraiser benefits Italian earthquake victims

Categories : Positively Pittsburgh

The world reacted in horror when a 6.3 magnitude earthquake rocked the medieval city of L’Aquila in central Italy on April 6, killing more than 300 residents and injuring more than 1,500. The devastation was particularly tough for Josephine Coletti of Ben Avon.

The retired teacher grew up in the village of Opi, one of 12 hamlets that compose Fagnano Alto, a commune 7 miles from the quake’s epicenter and the epicenter of the big aftershock on May 8, which caused more walls to crumble. (That rumble registered 5.8 on the Richter scale.)

Mrs. Coletti is concerned, of course, for her husband Joe’s family, who still live in the region and are on constant alert for the next big aftershock. But her heart also goes out to the 60,000 the earthquake left homeless.

“People are absolutely scared to sleep inside, even if their houses are agibile,” or habitable, she says. That goes for the house she visits at least once a year, which her great-grandfather built more than 150 years ago.

Yet, what can a good Italian girl do to help from the other side of the ocean? Especially now that the headlines have faded from the front pages of U.S. newspapers? Cook, of course — but for a price.

So many friends and neighbors go gaga over her homemade pasta sauces that in May, Mrs. Coletti decided to offer them for sale as a fundraiser for the residents of Fagnano Alto. Not that she’s uncomfortable knocking on doors or writing letters to ask for donations — in the past three months, she’s raised more than $9,000 doing exactly that. But she also understands she’d be able to approach people much more easily if she could offer them something tangible in return.

“It’s easy,” she says. “If you make a contribution, you can choose from my sauces.”

What a selection. There’s her simple-but-classic marinara, of course, which tastes of fresh tomatoes, parsley and extra-virgin olive oil, and an olive-studded puttanesca, a spicy sauce said to have gotten its name from the Neapolitan prostitutes who created the dish. Donors also have their choice of five more sauces, all of which, Mrs. Coletti points out, are made with the best ingredients.

Her vodka sauce, for example, includes top-notch pancetta and butter, while her sun-dried tomato sauce is made with tomatoes she not only picked by hand in Ohio and let ripen on her back porch but also dried in her home dehydrator. Other varieties include an authentic Bolognese meat sauce, which she simmers for four hours; a portabella mushroom sauce made with organic tomatoes; and a tomato-cream sauce that gets its sweet perfume from butter, carrots, celery, onions and San Marzano tomatoes. And heavy cream, of course.

You get six quarts of your choice for a minimum tax-deductible contribution of $200, 1 quart per $50 donation. All proceeds, when they’re distributed later this fall, will benefit the municipality of Fagnano Alto.

All right, so even Mrs. Coletti concedes it’s a bit pricey. But remember: It’s a sauce fundraiser, not a sauce sale. “And every little bit helps,” she says.

To date, she’s raised nearly $5,000 through her sauces in addition to her straight cash donations. But that, she says, “is just a drop in the bucket.” So many of the region’s cultural sites were so badly damaged or destroyed, including Romanesque churches, palazzi and other monuments from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, that it will take millions of dollars to put it all back together, if that’s even possible.

“People are still in post-disaster stress mode because the shakes continue,” says Mrs. Coletti, sighing. “And because at least 13 churches were destroyed, they’re having Mass in a tent.” Raising money through her sauces, then, “makes me feel good.”