Rome — Italy, land of spaghetti, tortellini, and ravioli, is euphoric over its latest concoction: an elaborate new package of foreign aid to help the world's starving millions.
Over the past year, the idea has seized the Italian political imagination like a pasta that sticks to the ribs. Politicians have kept the cause alive with parliamentary filibusters and hunger strikes.
The government has now made support for third-world development a ''cardinal point'' of its foreign policy. A country, which only two years ago gave minimal foreign aid has now budgeted $1.2 billion for this year, $1.7 billion for next, and $2.5 billion for the joint development fund of the OECD.
Prime Minister Giovanni Spadolini announced Italy's plan to provide a new centralized complex for United Nations food-related agencies based here in Rome. If accepted by the agencies, it would bring under one roof the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Food Council, World Food Program, and International Fund for Agricultural Development.
Some observers ask if a nation trying to come to grips with domestic problems of inflation, terrorism, and earthquake reconstruction, can afford to turn its scarce resources abroad.
As the Italians view the offerings on their political menu, the new aid surge makes sense. Italy can do things for third-world development, they say, and third-world development can do things for Italy.
Not only does Italy benefit from having the food organizations here in Rome, industry may also get a boost from expanded contacts with developing nations. And as the West has sought to boost its own economic prospects by joint ventures with the third world, Italians are suddenly becoming aware that they live in a geographically favored part of the world.
''We Italians have always been rather of two minds about our geographic loyalties,'' explains parliamentarian Aldo Ajello. ''We are involved with Europe , on the one hand, but we also identify with the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Middle East, so that we are a natural for projecting Western standards and technology to the third world.''
But Italy's new development thrust cannot be explained by economics or geography alone. For many Italians it marks an underlying renaissance of social idealism and global citizenshp. This appears to have penetrated a wide political and religious cross section of Italian life -- Social Democrat and Socialist, Radical and Communist, Roman Catholic and non-Catholic alike.
In September 1981, the Radical Party, known for its civil rights crusading, staged a hunger strike to dramatize the urgency of the issue. That, coupled with Radical Party demonstrations such as the New Year's candlelight procession through Rome, have impressed on Italians that they cannot stand idly by in the face of what party leader Marco Pannella calls the yearly holocaust of 40 million hunger-related deaths.
The UN food organizations have also been egging Italy on. FAO has long wanted more efficient facilities. And last June, when an Italian delegate challenged proposed increases in the FAO budget, Director-General Edouard Saouma reminded him how much Italy benefits from the FAO spending 66 percent of its multimillion-dollar budget through its Rome headquarters.
It could well take years before a new food complex can be built in Rome. And no doubt the new foreign aid thrust will not end world hunger overnight.
But now that they're getting on with the job, the Italians are not overly worried. After all, Rome wasn't built in a day.