ROME (AFP) - In a gritty Rome neighbourhood, a soup kitchen is serving up lip-smacking gourmet food donated from a famous delicatessen - part of a new initiative to combat food waste and feed a growing need in recession-hit Italy.
"Of course it's good! This is a VIP soup kitchen. We get a first course, second course and dessert. It's like a trattoria," Alessandro, a homeless Moldovan builder, told AFP as he finished up his sorbet in the San Benedetto parish canteen.
Organisers of the project entitled "Pasto Buono" ("Good Meal") contact gourmet grocers and restaurants which throw out scraps and day-old food and puts them in touch with organisations that run soup kitchens like the Catholic charity Caritas.
Regular runs are arranged. One goes daily from the luxury eatery Volpetti - a destination for fine diners - to the nearby Caritas canteen at San Benedetto in Ostiense, a dilapidated former industrial quarter south of Rome city centre.
Pizza, pasta, meat and fish all criss-cross the Italian capital, where great wealth lives side by side with increasing desperation caused by a sharp rise in unemployment and homelessness.
In the first few months of this year, Italians have had to cut their spending on food by three percent.
At the same time, six million tonnes of perfectly good food are thrown out in the country every year.
"Pasto Buono" so far includes around 30 restaurants, bars, patisseries and delicatessens, including famous tiramisu maker Pompi.
"This initiative is very important. It channels the generosity of shopkeepers and the needs of the poorest," said Father Fabio Bartoli, parish priest at San Benedetto, which feeds some 35 people a day.
Everyone contributes in whatever way they can.
Strabbioni, a trendy restaurant in the city centre, makes six meals three times a week for the homeless who sleep near Termini railway station.
Tiro a Volo, the restaurant of an exclusive sports club founded in the 19th century, gives away leftovers from its lavish Sunday buffets every Monday to a soup kitchen at San Bellarmino.
"Sometimes it's not enough so I have asked them to prepare two special plates of biscuits," said the director of the club, Michele Anastasio Pugliese.
At Volpetti, employees set aside leftovers in white cardboard boxes every night for pick-up in the morning by a van from Caritas.
"It doesn't cost us anything, just a bit of time," said Donato Sarzarulo, who works at the delicatessen.
"It's really needed now. The number of poor people is growing," Mr Sarzarulo added.
Volunteers say former middle-class Italians who have been hit hard by the government's austerity measures are among the "new poor" coming to soup kitchens, while immigrants who used to attend have left the country.
At the San Benedetto soup kitchen, 58-year-old Donato is grateful as one of Italy's "new poor".
"I used to be a jeweller but I was badly in debt. Now I've lost everything," he said.
"For the past two years, I've been sleeping in my car. I come and eat here for lunch and in the evenings I go to the supermarket and steal bread."
Charities complain that initiatives like "Pasto Buono" are limited because of the red tape that potential donors have to deal with.
"There is a bureaucracy," Gregorio Fogliano, director of the "Pasto Buono", said in an interview at his offices, calling for new laws to simplify the process.
"The eateries that have joined are top quality. These are people who apart from wanting to do some good, also want to get rid of unsold food," he said.
His aim is to provide 110,000 meals a year in Rome.
The initiative began in Genoa in 2007 and is now also up and running in Florence. It plans to extend to Palermo in Sicily in the near future.