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Italian-Americans Race to ‘Step Up and Do Something’ After Earthquake

Italy Quake: Race to Find Survivors as Death Toll Rises to Over 250 2:27

In Italian communities across the United States, Italian-Americans — many with friends and relatives still living in the old country — are working the phones and keeping close watch on coverage of Wednesday's disastrous earthquake in central Italy.

"I was there two days ago," said Stefan Marchese, a musician and teacher in Boston whose parents and many other relatives still live in the region.

IMAGE: Amatrice, Italy, earthquake damage
Rescuers work amid collapsed building Thursday in Amatrice, Italy. AP

"They felt it. They felt the shock," Marchese told New England Cable News. "Of course they are scared. Maybe they will sleep a few nights in a car because they are afraid to go back in the houses."

As for himself, "the feeling to be far away — it makes you nervous, because you don't know what to do," he said.

The Italian flag was flying at half-staff outside the Italian Athletic Club in Washington Square Park, the heart of San Francisco's Italian community. The club has been in contact with the Italian Embassy and is donating proceeds from a spaghetti-and-meatball benefit dinner Tuesday night to relief organizations.

"Everybody loves Italy, and when something like that happens, we're all one," Joe Marotto, the club's president, told NBC Bay Area.

The Columbus Italian Club in Ohio launched its own fundraising drive, hoping to funnel thousands of dollars to rescue efforts.

"Unfortunately, a lot of the small towns in Italy — if you've ever been to them, their houses are hundreds and hundreds of years old before there was any kind of earthquake protections, and they just crumble," Bill DeMora, the club's chairman, told NBC station WCMH of Columbus.

"They're going to run out of beds," he said. "They're going to run out of medicine [and] bandages, and they're already out of blood."

IMAGE: Vincenzo Gismondi
Vincenzo Gismondi, who often visited Amatrice, Italy, as a child, in the Italian restaurant he owns in Boca Raton, Fla. WPTV-TV

Vincenzo Gismondi, whose father immigrated to Florida and started Arturo's Ristorante in Boca Raton, Fla., said he was horrified by the thought of "those things crushing on top of you."

"It must be devastating for families, anyone with children, especially," said Gismondi, who runs his father's restaurant with his wife and five daughters.

Gismondi told NBC station WPTV of West Palm Beach, Fla., that he visited Amatrice — one of the cities hardest hit by Wednesday's 6.2-magnitude earthquake — nearly every summer as a child.

"It's way up on this hill — a beautiful medieval, old town," said Gismondi, much of whose family still lives about two hours south of the city; he said they're safe.

Gismondi makes a point of serving Amatrice's signature dish, pasta all'Amatriciana, at Arturo's. He fell in love with it during frequent visits to the famous old Hotel Roma on the city's main street — half of which is now rubble.

Image: Hotel Roma, Amatrice, Italy
The entrance of Hotel Roma in the central Italian village of Amatrice on Thursday. Filippo Monteforte / AFP - Getty Images

The pork jowl-tomato-cheese specialty "meant a lot to us," he said. "As a restaurateur, it was truly authentic."

As Americans so closely tied to one of the world's premier culinary traditions, Italian restaurant owners, in particular, are mobilizing.

In New York, home to the one of the country's largest Italian community, Ribalta has added pasta all'Amatriciana to its menu.

It's quite a change for the Greenwich Village pizzeria, which is famed for its traditional Neapolitan cuisine. But through the end of September, it's serving up the dish and donating $4 from every plate it sells to earthquake relief.

"This is a moment to step up and do something," co-owner Rosario Procino — whose son is in Italy — told NBC New York. (His son's OK, Procino said).

IMAGE: Spaghetti all'amatriciana
Pasta all'amatriciana, the namesake dish of the central Italian town of Amatrice, features in many Italian-American earthquake relief fund-raising campaigns. AP

Alfonso Piscane, chef at Civico 1845 in San Diego's Little Italy neighborhood, is also featuring pasta all'Amatriciana to help raise money. He's donating 100 percent of the sales of the dish.

"We are a big family. It's something in Italy we grow up with, because all the families are very big," Piscane, who grew up on Italy's Amalfi Coast, told NBC San Diego.

"In front of this big tragedy [is] when we really show the best part of us. We show our big heart," he said. "But to be honest with you, it doesn't matter where you come from. We all feel like we need to do something to help in the way we can."