Wandering through the aisles of a combination five-and-dime and supermarket, a 34-year-old housewife just back from a three-month vacation at the shore was relieved to find that the price of food and "back-to-school" clothing for her two children had increased less than she'd expected.

At a commercial bank across town in Piazza Di Spagna, an Italian banker explained that it had become so easy for him to negotiate short-term foreign loans that a negative 1974 report by the U.S. Comptroller of the Currency could be considered "ancient history."

An executive of a shoe exporting firm who was waiting to make a deposit said business was booming and, a few hours later, a high-ranking Bank of Italy official reported exultantly on a turnaround in the Italian balance of payments that "once again makes us a respectable member of the international economy."

In a recent roundup of sights and sounds of the post-summer Italian economy, a sour note was struck only by manufacturers and union leaders concerned that a three-year policy of stop and go is once again likely to put both production and employment back in the doldrums.

Recent statistics show a 7.7 per cent drop in industrial production for July that is expected to bring total 1977 gross domestic product down three points to about 2.5 per cent.

An additional 226,000 persons have joined the unemployment rolls since the spring. And falling production could lead to layoffs later in the year. But there is widespread agreement that Italy's monetary and financial situation nevertheless has so stabilized itself that last year's nightmare of a bankrupt Italy now seems little more than a rapidly fading bad dream.

"It's hard to believe that only a year ago there was a run on the lira that was so severe we thought we might have to close," say Ivo and Paolo, two men who run a private money exchange used by many of the city's foreign residents.

Last fall's currency crisis was so bad that the then fledgling Andreotti government, which depends on the Communists' tacit support, was forced to take drastic measures, including a temporary 10 per cent surcharge of foreign exchange purchases, a $60 billion tax increase, and a sharp rise in interest rates that saw the prime bank rate hit 20 per cent.

"I don't know much about economics, but I can tell that prices have been rising more slowly than they have in years," says Adriana Peretti, who adds that soaring Italian prices in recent years have made it impossible for her and her husband to save.

In fact, the major effect of last fall's draconian program has been to bring inflation down from more than 20 per cent a year to the current 12 per cent rate. But the drop in inflation, which gives the Italians a good chance of reaching their 1978 target of 10 per cent, has done more than please consumers here.

Exports are running about 10 per cent above imports and, with tourism and foreign remittances also on the rise, the 1977 balance of payments is expected to be in equilibrium and reach a surplus next March. This is a sharp improvement since the end of 1976 when there was a $2.5 billion deficit.

The government program also has led foreign exchange reserves to increase to $6 billion, a vast change from the January 1976 situation when reserves had dwindled to a mere $500 million.

"We've certainly proved ourselves able to right a very nasty situation," crowed the Bank of Italy official. He pointed out that Italy now appears likely to meet most of the targets and guidelines set by a sweeping agreement last spring with the International Monetary Fund.

Other pluses that Italian government officials point to with pride are the prompt repayment this summer of $1.3 billion of German and U.S. loans and the country's improved standing in international money markets.

"We've still got close to $20 billion of loans to pay off, but clearly we're being taken more seriously by our counterparts in other countries," said the short-term borrowing of Italian commercial banks has soared fivefold to an unexpected $7 billion, demonstrating that Italy no longer is considered a poor financial risk.

"That all sounds very good on paper, but it hasn't helped me find a job," says Paoloa, a 28-year-old economics graduate student who was waiting in line at an employment office here to sign up for a new government job program for Italian youngsters between the ages of 15 and 29.

And a construction worker active in Italy's large, left-wing-dominated CGIL trade union said he recognizes "the importance of the improvements made so far, but they're not going to make me feel any better if this winter I'm out of work."

For despite internationally recognized gains in the country's monetary and financial position, little progress has been made in curbing unemployment. One-third of Western Europe's 5 million unemployed are Italians, a majority of whom are recent high school and college graduates looking for their first jobs.

"The fact is that the improvement in the Italian balance of payments and the sharp drop in inflation have been due largely to a decline in economic activity that after two good years could bring Italy once again to recession's brink," says a western economist here.

Despite an excellent performance in 1976, Italian industry has been weakened in recent years by spiraling wage increases and rigid union hiring policies that have dampened most desire for expansion.

Big state-owned companies like the Italsider steel firm and Alfa Romeo are already in big trouble, a large government-owned confectionary firm (Undial) was liquidated last month, and the giant Montedison chemical complex could lose as much as $360 million this year.

But the major concern at present is that the brakes applied to the economy last year will cause a sharp fall in industrial production that could prove fatal to firms already suffering from scarce investments and high labor costs.

"The government is pleased with the results of its emergency program, and efforts to control inflation must be continued," said a spokesman for the National Manufacturers' Association. "But it will all be for nought if it proves impossible to slowly reflate the economy into steady and sustainable growth," he added.

With the current volume of output the greatest in Italian history, with exports booming and with a deferred tax-payment program likely soon to release some new purchasing power, government officials claim there is a good chance that this can be done.

Other Italians are more pessimistic. They feel that the current minority Christian Democratic government is not strong enough to undertake the structural reforms that the Italian economy really needs.

"As long as we depend on foreign money to get us out of the hole, pleasing the IMF and saving face abroad will continue to be our top priority," said one Italian economist. "Perhaps the government ought to look at things the other way round and remember the old adage that charity begins at home."