Franco Buitoni and Ilaria Borletti are channeling the passion they once applied to making pasta and sauce into supporting young classical musicians.

In 2002, nearly two decades after Buitoni sold the 180-year-old company that bears his name, the couple created the Borletti-Buitoni Trust, which has since become a much-sought-after helping hand and career booster for classical music's rising stars.

Started with an initial grant of about $700,000, the trust has helped finance about 50 musicians, vocalists and ensembles from 21 countries. The awards and fellowships have ranged from $20,000 to $60,000. In all, it has dispensed $4 million, including grants, travel expenses for musicians, and marketing costs for concerts, according to Susan Rivers, the trust's executive director.

"There is nothing more wonderful in life than to help talent to develop, and there is nothing more depressing in life than to see a wonderful talent that doesn't have the practical means to develop," Borletti said in a recent telephone interview from her home in Perugia, Italy.

This month, the trust launched its first series of chamber music concerts in the United States, featuring past grant recipients. At a New York performance Saturday at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall, the Buitoni alums shared the stage with classical pianist Mitsuko Uchida, one of the top interpreters of Mozart and Beethoven. They performed the same program in Philadelphia on Thursday, at the Kimmel Center.

"The feeling of being encouraged is the strongest element of this award," said violinist Soovin Kim, 32, a 2005 Borletti-Buitoni award winner who performed with Uchida last week. "What we're continuously in awe of is the support that the trust is willing to give us."

Borletti and Buitoni, both lovers of Bach and Schubert, decided they could use the wealth generated by their pasta-and-sauce empire to help underwrite a new generation of classical musicians.

Buitoni, who was managing director of the family-owned business founded in 1827, sold the company to Italian financier Carlo De Benedetti in 1985 for about $230 million, Borletti said. Three years later, Benedetti turned around and sold the Buitoni food group to Nestle SA for $1.27 billion.

With business worries behind him, Buitoni turned to his friend Uchida for advice on how to select musicians for the grants and how to give out the money. He and Borletti also hired Rivers, a veteran orchestra administrator and concert promoter in London, to manage the trust.

The organization's artistic committee screens musicians and awards the grants. The panel is made up of Buitoni, Uchida, Adam Gatehouse, who is editor of BBC Radio 3's Live Music, and Martijn Sanders, former director of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

"The aim is to give the artists career possibilities on a large scale - not just a check, but the support of public relations and getting them in touch with people who could help their careers," Borletti said.

The bar to becoming a Borletti-Buitoni finalist is high. Kim, who lives in New York, had won the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant and won first place in the Niccolo Paganini International Violin Competition when he was 20.

British violinist Alina Ibragimova, a 2008 Borletti-Buitoni award winner, was one of the youngest ever chosen for the Royal Philharmonic Society's Emily Anderson Prize for emerging musicians.

Dutch trombonist Jorgen Van Rijen used some of the money from his 2006 grant to record a CD that will be released this year. In 2004, Van Rijen won the Netherlands Music Prize, the highest honor given by the Dutch Ministry of Culture.

The prize money can be used in a variety of ways. Kim produced a chamber music CD, Niccolo Paganini: 24 Caprices (Azica, 2006). The Leopold String Trio, winners in 2004, organized a concert series.

Borletti said that in the coming years the trust will continue to search for the best young classical musicians to support.

"My idea is to get the quality of recipients as high as possible," she said. "I want to get this program to the point that music institutions in the world will watch our Web site every year because they want to know who are the winners, because they know they will find good talent."