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Italy Today

… is eating well?

The old joke says that three-quarters of the food and wine served in Italy is good … and the rest is amazing. In some sense, that's still true, and the "good" 75% has gotten even better.

Those pundits would claim that ingredients that in the past were available only to the wealthy can now be found even in the remotest parts of the country at reasonable prices. Dishes originally conceived to make the most of inferior cuts of meat or the least flavorful part of vegetables are now made with the best.

But there's increasing evidence—pause, gesture, exclamation—that many Italians would say that the food in Italy is getting worse. There's a proliferation of fast food, and increasing tourism has allowed many restaurants to lower their standards while raising their prices. This is true not only in Rome, but in most other tourist centers as well. Also, economic developments have brought women into the workplace and people don't go home for lunch prepared by mamma anymore. Accordingly, the standard that young people are exposed to has changed, and not for the better.

The good news is Italy is home to one of the world's greatest cuisines, and its traditional favorites still put meat on bones and smiles on faces. Italian restaurateurs seem determined to make the most of the country's reputation for good food. Though quaint family-run trattorias with checkered tablecloths, traditional dishes, and informal atmosphere are still common but on the decline, nearly every town has a newer eatery with matching flatware, a proper wine list, and an innovative menu.

The same is true of Italian wine. A generation ago, the omnipresent straw-basket Chianti was a mainstay of pizzerias around the world, but the wine inside was often watery and insipid. Today, through investment and experimentation, Italy's winemakers are figuring out how to get the most from their gorgeous vineyards. It's fair to say that Italy now produces more types of high-quality wine from more different grape varieties than any other country in the world.

… is passionate about soccer

Soccer stands without rival as the national sport of Italy, but recent years have seen some changes to the beautiful game. On the positive side, Italy won its fourth World Cup in 2006, giving the country more world titles than any other this side of Brazil. The game is still played at a high level and its teams do well in international tournaments. In the past few years, however, soccer lovers have had to come to terms with a series of unwelcome developments, including more violence around the stadia (which keeps children away), rigged referee selections to favor some major teams, and, worst of all, match-fixing at all levels (and throughout Europe) financed by betting consortia in Asia. More games in the schedule and dwindling fan bases mean fewer people are seen at the stadium. Still, the fans can't stop watching the game on television.

… is getting older

Italy's population is the oldest in Europe (worldwide, only Japan's is older)—the result of its low birth rate, relatively strict immigration standards, and one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world. As of 2012, the median Italian was 43.8 years old (compared to 37.1 in the U.S.) and the number keeps rising.

The result is a remarkably stable population: the number of Italian residents barely rises most years, and, according to the most recent estimates, is projected to start contracting by 2020. But the situation is putting a strain on the country's pension system and on families, because elderly family members are likely to live with their children or grandchildren in a country where retirement homes are rare.

The trend also has an impact in other areas, including politics (where older politicians are eager to promote policies aimed at older voters), the popular culture (where everything from fashion to television programming takes older consumers into consideration), and a kind of far-reaching nostalgia. Thanks to a long collective memory, it's common to hear even younger Italians celebrate or rue something that happened 50 or 60 years earlier as if it had just taken place.

… lives with a black-market economy

Nobody knows how big Italy's black-market economy is, though experts all agree it's massive. Estimates place it at anywhere from a fourth to a half of the official, legal economy.

Put another way, if the highest estimates are correct, Italy's black market is about as large as the entire economy of Switzerland or Indonesia. If the estimated black-market figures were added to the official GDP, Italy would likely leapfrog France and the U.K. to become the world's fifth-largest economy.

The presence of the black market isn't obvious to the casual observer, but whenever a customer isn't given a printed receipt in a store or restaurant, tobacco without a tax seal is bought from a street seller, or a product or service is exchanged for another product or service, that means the transaction goes unrecorded, unreported, and untaxed. But that's all penny-ante stuff compared to what many professionals evade by neglecting to declare all they earn.

… has a growing parks system

Italy boasts 25 national parks covering a total of around 1.5 million hectares (58,000 square miles), or about 5% of the entire surface area of the country—more than twice as much as 25 years ago. And a new park is added or an existing park is expanded every few months.

Part of the reason for the expansion has been a growing environmental movement in Italy, which has lobbied the government to annex undeveloped land for parks, thus protecting against development. But the trend is a boon for visitors and nature lovers, who can enjoy huge expanses of unspoiled territory.

… is staying home in August

Italy used to be the best example of Europe's famous August exodus—where city dwellers would spend most of the month at the seaside or in the mountains, leaving the cities nearly deserted. Today the phenomenon continues, but is much less prevalent, as economic pressures have forced companies to keep operating through August. As a result, vacations are more staggered and vacationers' plans are often more modest.

The loss of shared vacation time for Italian workers can be a boon to visitors, both because in August there's more room at the seaside and in the mountains, and because cities have taken to promoting local events designed to appeal to residents who are staying put. These days, summers in Italy boast a plethora of outdoor concerts and plays; longer restaurant and museum hours; and food, wine, and culture fairs.

Updated: 03-2014

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