Lunch hour in Italy serves up some sour economic lessons

Tue Sep 3, 2013 7:30am EDT
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By James Mackenzie

ROME (Reuters) - Of all the statistics available on Italy and its varied economic problems, few are as eye-opening as the fact that at around 1 p.m on any given day, three quarters of the population will normally be sitting down to lunch in their own homes.

According to data from statistics agency ISTAT, lunch is the most important meal of the day for 68 percent of Italians and 74.3 percent usually eat it at home, a figure which has grown as a long recession has hit spending on food and eating out.

As anyone who has seen the shuttered afternoon streets of a small Italian town knows, it can be hard to get much done at lunchtime in Italy, even though many shops and businesses stay open until relatively late in the evening to compensate.

"It's very important to Italians to eat something proper, sitting down, even if it's just a plate of spaghetti," said Pamela Iorio, a physiotherapist, as she shopped for fruit and vegetables in her local suburban market in Rome. "People don't like just eating sandwiches."

But behind the well-known importance of mealtimes, lies a picture of a country whose justly celebrated culinary tradition is matched by a crippling set of problems which have resisted reform and given it one of the most sluggish economies in the world for more than a decade.

While mealtimes reflect the enduring strength of the family in Italy, a big factor in maintaining social stability, they are also kept alive by the fact that so few people go out to work and by the dominance of small and often uncompetitive firms.

Take its chronically low employment rate, especially of women, who tend to be at home more than men, and especially in the poorer Mezzogiorno region of southern Italy, where as many as 86 percent of people normally have lunch in their own house.

Eating at home in the middle of the day is easier if you don't have to be at work and only 57 percent of working-aged people in Italy have a paid job, compared with an average of 66 percent for the 34 members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.   Continued...

A woman eats a sandwich during lunch time downtown in Rome April 18, 2012. REUTERS/Tony Gentile