New York graphic designer Danielle Oteri recalls meeting a striking 28-year-old adonis at an eatery in Sicily and lingering over a romantic glass of wine. But just when sweet poetry began to flow from his lips, a cell phone erupted into song. "Ehm... just a minute," he whispered. "It's Mamma. She wants to know when I'll be home." For Oteri, the Italian stereotype of mammismo - the exaggerated bond between Italian men and their mothers - was confirmed.

A whopping 37 percent of Italian men aged 30 to 34 still live with their parents - twice as many as women of the same ages - and Italy's economic minister is losing patience. Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa's latest proposal to stimulate the economy is to lure men toward autonomy with a tax break: "Let's get those big babies out of the house," he declared in October of 2007.

The public reacted with outrage. "Staying with family at least assures a roof over your head," says attorney Beppe Serelli. "While it's true Italy has a problem with sons never growing up in their mothers' eyes," says Giuliana Proietti, a psychologist in Ancona, "never have our young adults been faced with such economic difficulty."

To Italians, with their history of strong family ties, there is nothing pathological about staying put until marriage, especially if one is unemployed. "The traditional family unit was historically the only guarantee of survival in uncertain times," says Roberto Vincenzi, a professor of psychotherapy in Genoa. Vincenzi says the key factor that keeps Italy's "figli per sempre" (sons forever) home in greater numbers than daughters is the sons' stronger attachments to their mothers. Proietti believes that mammismo has its roots in the traditional role of the Italian (and Latin) woman, who often felt unfulfilled before career and divorce were options. "She thus poured her love into her children. Over time, the son became a sort of husband to his mother, without the sexual component," she says. Vincenzi says the mother-son bond becomes pathological only when it impedes the son from growing up.

Economists Enrico Moretti and Marco Manacorda say Italian parents may be trying to impede the autonomy of their offspring. According to their research, Italian parents directly and indirectly financially bribe their children to remain home. "Italians, unlike parents from most other countries," Moretti says, "like living with their grown children." - Raeleen Mautner