An informative, on-the-scene view of Italy and the Italian way, by the author of Rome: The Sweet, Tempestuous Life (1982) and O Vatican (1983). ""Fine Italian hand,"" which once referred to Renaissance penmanship, ""has long meant the particular way Italians do things,"" Hofmann writes. But what was once a ""tribute to proverbial dexterity"" now carries ""ironical overtones suggesting manipulation and craftiness."" Hofmann draws on the phrase to signify the Italians' individuality, creativity, and ""continual maneuvering"" (in cars, jobs, stores, and love). The author, former Rome bureau chief for The New York Times, first moved to Italy when Hitler overran his native Vienna. He observes his adopted land with a sharp, detached eye: ""The bustling and at times disconcerting country that Italy is today,"" he writes, ""is no quaint idyll or permanent comedy or aesthete's dream."" Italy, he argues, has won prestige through its design of clothing and other products, and through its ""pasta, pizza and espresso."" Functioning by ""arrangement,"" and bypassing ""red tape"" and taxes, thriving private enterprise has created a postwar industrial power. Hofmann explains the country's ""ramshackle"" infrastructure, burdensome bureaucracy, and endless lines, as well as the extremist terrorism of the ""leaden years"" (now seemingly over) and the violent grip of the Mafia. Italy's major problem, in Hofmann's view, is the future of the economically stagnant Mezzogiorno, which (primarily because of the Mafia) continues to fall behind the thriving, more European North. Typically, one chapter breezes through the squabbles and successes of entrepreneurial dynasties (Gucci, Agnelli, Benetton etc.), but manages only marginal insights into ""weakening family structures."" Rare in its objectivity, this report clearly confronts Italy's contradictions, though it may leave the uninitiated wondering about the enchantment.