Ah, the Winter Olympics. The icy thrill of victory. The bitter cold agony of defeat. It comes but once in four years, folks -- enjoy it while it lasts.

Long before the Olympics begin, and long after they have ended, the nations that compete amid the ice and snow will continue their struggle off the playing fields, slopes, and rinks. In the realm of business, their national champions do battle 24 hours a day (the sun's always shining on a sale somewhere), seven days a week, 365 days a year.

It's that latter contest we're concerned with here at the Fool. We leave the excitement of full-contact tobogganing and extreme figure ski jumping to others. Our business is helping you, the investor, learn more about the markets.

That said, we do have one thing have in common with the Olympics: Ours is a global competition. So, in the spirit of Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert and his ongoing "Get to Know a District" campaign, today (and again tomorrow, in Part II of this column) we're going to help you "Get to Know a Country."

And where better to begin than .
... with Olympic host nation Italy. It's only proper that we give this honor to our Torino hosts. And believe it or not, Italy is a pretty easy country to get to know, investment-wise. Unless you're a banker, there are only a handful of ways to invest in the country. Only 28 Italian companies have shares represented on U.S. stock markets, in the form of American Depositary Receipts.

Furthermore, only 11 maintain listings on the New York Stock Exchange. The rest are traded on the Pink Sheets, which means that 1) their financial disclosures likely fall short of NYSE standards, and 2) their ADRs may lack sufficient liquidity to make for attractive investments.

To narrow the field just a bit more, let's finally strike from the list the two companies that, although NYSE-listed, lack detailed write-ups or financial data on Yahoo! Finance: Fiat and Telecom Italia. That leaves us with nine potential candidates. Nine publicly traded firms whose investability we can weigh against their U.S. counterparts.

A word to the Foolish
For each of these companies, I'm going to lay out three crucial bits of information that you, the investor, need to know. First, the company name and ticker. Second, the "level" of the ADR -- at the risk of oversimplification, Level II and Level III ADRs are "good." Level I ADRs should be approached with caution, because they trade "over the counter" and may fall short of the requirements for listing on a U.S. stock exchange.

Third and finally, the ratio of "one ADR" to the number of Italian common shares the ADR represents. This bit of information can be crucial when you encounter discrepancies in the information provided by different financial websites. If Yahoo! tells you a company has 1 million shares selling for $100 apiece, and MSN says there are 2 million selling for $50 each, you may not know whom to believe. But if you know the company has a ratio of two common shares to one ADR, you'll know where the buggy data lies.

Let the games begin
Here, then, begins our contest. Today and tomorrow, I'll lay out for you the nine members of Italy's home team: four today and the last five tomorrow. Judge for yourself whether they're worth digging into further.

Benetton (NYSE:BNG)
1 ADR = 2 Common Shares

We all know Benetton from the old "United Colors of Benetton" commercials. And yes, the company makes clothes, but did you know it also has a sports products line? While its clothing line does battle with the likes of Gap (NYSE:GPS), its sports line competes with Quiksilver and Nike (NYSE:NKE) by selling skateboards, snow boards, ski boots, and shoes.

As an investment, Benetton doesn't stack up well against the competition. At a trailing P/E of 20, it's about 30% pricier than its U.S.-based rivals. On the other hand, Benetton does pay a market-beating (and competitor-trouncing) dividend, yielding 3.4%.

De Rigo (NYSE:DER)
1 ADR = 1 Common Share

Unless you were fortunate enough to be born with 20-20 vision, chances are you know De Rigo. The company manufactures eyewear, both lenses and frames, which it sells under its Police, Sting, and Lozza brand names. It also licenses the use of several other companies' brands to help sell its wares.

The company's ADRs trade for less than 10 times earnings, but not for long. De Rigo recently announced it will terminate its ADR program, and -- depending on when you read this -- its ADRs may already have ceased trading on the NYSE (termination is currently expected to occur on Feb. 10). Never fear, however, for the company has a local competitor whose ADRs do continue to trade here. That company is:

Luxottica (NYSE:LUX)
1 ADR = 1 Common Share

Nearly 10 times as large as De Rigo by sales, and nearly 50 times as large by market cap, Luxottica is a much bigger player in the world of fashion eyewear -- but its shares carry a price tag to match. The firm sports a P/E of 28 against earnings growth that is projected to average 17% per annum over the next five years.

In that respect, the company doesn't look like quite as good a bargain as the soon-to-be-departed De Rigo, or U.S. rival Oakley (NYSE:OO), either. At 15.5%, Oakley's projected earnings growth is nearly as robust as Luxottica's, but Oakley's shares trade for just 21 times trailing earnings. When you consider that both Oakley and Luxottica offer almost identical dividend yields (1% versus 1.1%, respectively), a U.S. investor could be forgiven for choosing to simply invest at home.

Moving from the world of fashion eyewear to other forms of fashion, let's wrap up today's column with a look at:

Natuzzi (NYSE:NTZ)
1 ADR = 1 Common Share

Regular Fool readers should already be familiar with Natuzzi. In the past, we highlighted the leather furniture maker as offering a seemingly attractive valuation that could one day earn it a place in our Motley FoolHidden Gems portfolio, right alongside U.S. furniture makers Hooker Furniture and Stanley Furniture.

Unfortunately, competing in a generally anemic furniture market, and bearing the added burden of selling Euro-priced wares into a dollar-denominated U.S. consumer market, Natuzzi turned unprofitable last December and hasn't yet made it back into the black. Its stock has paid the price, falling more than 30% over the past year. As a result, the company now sells for a price-to-sales ratio that makes it look pretty good, relatively speaking, when compared to both Hooker and Stanley.

Then again, both Hooker and Stanley are still profitable, and each pays a dividend -- something that Natuzzi, unusual for a European stock, does not do. Personally, I'd suggest parking your wallet elsewhere until Natuzzi gets its act together.

Until next time
We've spent enough time on the Italian peninsula for today, so let's take five for now. But tune back in tomorrow and we'll examine the rest of what Italian investing has to offer.

Until then, Fool on!

Gap is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. Fool contributor Rich Smith owns shares of Hooker Furniture. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy stands alone on the gold medal platform.