By James Mackenzie
ROME, Sept 3 (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.
For women, traditionally in charge of cooking and housework, only 47 percent have a paid job, compared with the OECD average of 60 percent.
The figures are even more accentuated in the south where in the three big regions of Sicily, Calabria and Campania, more than 60 percent of working age people are not in regular paid employment, according to ISTAT data.
"Most people my age in the south, even if they're qualified professionals, eat at home because they don't work and spend most of their time looking for a job," said Walter Medolla, a 31-year old worker for a voluntary association in Naples.
SMALL TOWNS, SMALL COMPANIES
The low level of employment is not the only thing that makes regular mealtimes at home possible for so many people. Another is the large number who work in small towns, often for tiny companies which close down during the lunch hour.
"Obviously Milan, Turin or Rome would have many more who eat away from home," said Paolo Corvo, who teaches Sociology at University of Gastronomic Sciences, a specialist institute near the northern city of Turin.
"But Italy is made up of small towns and tradition, especially in the south where many women don't have jobs but instead stay at home and value cooking for their husbands, plays a big part in this," he said.
According to figures from ISTAT, more than 9.2 million people, or some 42 percent of the 22 million Italians in employment, work for companies with no more than 15 employees, a sector long seen as too small to be properly competitive.
A recent Bank of Italy study found companies with fewer than 10 employees, many weak, undercapitalised and not very profitable, accounted for a heavier share of the economy in Italy than in any other country in Europe and acted as a major drag on economic efficiency.
Again the tendency is more pronounced in southern Italy, where there are relatively few big private sector employers, than in the north, the country's industrial heartland.
However even leaving aside the benefits of home cooking and a healthy diet, the lunchtime tradition also points to the strength of family networks in Italy, a factor which has become more important during the country's longest postwar recession.
As well as proving a home for young people who cannot afford to set up on their own, family support is all that many people have to rely on if they lose their job in a country where unemployment support is very limited.
There are also other intangible benefits which may require careful thought if economic reform is not to force Italians, like so many others, to end up queuing in a works canteen or hunched over a computer screen with a plastic-wrapped sandwich.
"There's been a change since the 1970s when pretty much everyone would have eaten at home," said Corvo. "But even so, Italy is still a country where you can see the differences between north and south, city and small town and where every region has its own food traditions." (Additional reporting by Amalia De Simone in Naples; Editing by Jon Boyle)