Bra shops in Rome are akin to doughnut shops in Canada — both play on softly tantalizing the senses and there's one on nearly every corner.
But, like doughnut shops in Canada, bra shops in Italy come with glaring holes.
The biggest is bra fitting.
Bra-fitting services, available throughout North America and many European countries, involve trained salespeople who measure breast size and the circumference of the chest, and provide tips on how to properly adjust and wear the straps, and, if necessary, artfully move breasts inside the bra cups for optimal comfort.
In Italy, however, a country that offers a dazzling display of cleavage, bra fitting appears to be a blind spot.
"There are many stores that sell bras in Italy," says Joanna Grunt, co-owner of Pati Jo, billed as the only boutique in Italy to offer over 200 bra and swimwear sizes. "But basically they [are chain stores that] have only five sizes so they don't fit well. They look nice, but there is no fitting. And you can't put so many breasts in five sizes."
Grunt and friend Patrycja Lewicka, immigrants from Poland, launched their bra-fitting boutique five years ago.
Lewicka had just given birth and couldn't find a bra in Rome to fit her new sized breasts. During a weekend getaway to London, they walked into a bra-fitting boutique and walked out with a mission to change what they call "the culture of breasts" in Italy.
No EU funding for pair's venture
The two took an intensive bra design and manufacturing course in London and then tried to get a bank loan and start-up funding from the European Union. No one bit. So, they risked their own money and invested in more than 200 models of bras, and launched Pati Jos.
Located in the historic centre of Rome, the small boutique is a beehive of activity, even on a hot August afternoon. An assistant fits women behind lush velvet curtains, as Jo books appointments for customers who have walked in off the street.
Two first-time customers are mother Paola, an orchestra director in Rome, and her 20-year-old violinist daughter Ludovica.
"All the hours I sit holding a violin is hard enough on my back," says Paola, who is hoping to find a bikini top that fits, too, "but with large breasts, it just makes things worse."
The combo of her tiny chest circumference and large cup size have made it next to impossible to find a bra that fits in Italy, she says, where strap size increases in tandem with cup size.
She says she has come for a bra that offers serious support, but that is also alluring.
Her mother Paola is here just for the support, thanks very much.
Tolerance for discomfort
She blames Italian women's tolerance for discomfort on the deep-seated belief here that bras are first and foremost a means of seduction.
It's a concept she tells me she finds "pleonastic" — overkill.
"Let's just say we come from a culture where one of the principal arms of seduction is not the intellect," she says, laughing.
Alexandra Korey, a Florence-based art historian blogger from Toronto who dedicated a whole post to airing her frustrations in finding a decent bra in Italy, says she is thrilled that bra fitting has finally made it to Italy.
'It just seems to me that Italian women are totally unaware that their bras don't fit. So many women here have their breasts coming out on top or the straps cutting in at the side.' - Art historian blogger Alexandra Korey
"I have bought just one bra in this country," she says, "and it was German."
She made the purchase, she says, from "a little old lady shop," whose owner disapprovingly informed her Italian bras seldom fit foreign women.
Korey says she thinks the shop owner's comment is less an indication of anomalously shaped foreigners and more a reflection of Italian women's low expectation of what a bra should do.
Bad-fitting bras commonplace
Ironically, in a country that places such heavy stock on fashion and sex appeal, Korey says bad-fitting bras are commonplace.
"It just seems to me that Italian women are totally unaware that their bras don't fit," she says. "So many women here have their breasts coming out on top or the straps cutting in at the side."
"But, how do you tell a relative or friend that you really need a different fit of bra?"
Another practical — and appealing — aspect of bra fitting: you can leave that to the experts, too.