updated 12/20/2008 7:13:32 PM ET 2008-12-21T00:13:32

Some homeless people in Italy will be savoring beluga caviar this Christmas, thanks to officials who seized 88 pounds of the contraband delicacy from smugglers.

The caviar has been given to Italian charities to be served alongside the traditional foods they feed the poor on Christmas — like lentils, pasta and cake — officials said Saturday.

Italy and many other countries ban beluga caviar — often the most expensive variety — in hopes of saving the dwindling population of sturgeon who produce the salty eggs.

Late last month, officials seized 88 pounds of Russian beluga stashed in the refrigerator at a woman's home in Milan, said Juri Mantegazza, an inspector for Italy's forestry corps, which enforces endangered species regulations. The delicacy was destined for the black market in Milan, Venice and Monte Carlo, the inspector said.

The woman and two Polish citizens were arrested, Mantegazza said. But what to do with all those confiscated fish eggs?

"I came up with the idea of giving away all the caviar to the poor," Mantegazza, who is based in the northern town of Tradate Varese, said in a telephone interview. "Because last year, after a similar operation, we ended up destroying all the confiscated caviar."

Instead, this year's haul is being donated to the Red Cross, Franciscan monks, homes that care for the elderly, and other organizations that will prepare holiday lunches for the homeless and poor in the Milan area, he said.

The helpings promise to be generous.

The Rev. Massimo Mapelli, who helps run a shelter for the homeless and recovering addicts, said his center will get 22 pounds of caviar for 82 diners. That's about 4 1/2 ounces per person — two to four times the amount chefs traditionally serve to wealthy diners.

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