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Italy in Bocca – how rare cookbooks with cardboard covers inspired a food film

Roberto Serrini, an editor and filmmaker, and Peter Boggia, a motorcycle mechanic, are two friends from Queens with a shared love of books and food, particularly authentic Italian cuisine.

Inspired by a series of rare cardboard-bound, handwritten cookbooks published in 1976 by a small Italian publisher called Edizone Il Vespro, Roberto and Peter have made a short documentary film called Italy in Bocca.

Roberto Serrini (left) and Peter Boggia (Pic: italyinbocca.com)

The ‘In Bocca’ series of cookbooks explores 20 different regions of Italy (Roma in Bocca, Veneto in Bocca, Umbria in Bocca etc) through authentic recipes, and also poetry, art, and history. Filled with eye-catching illustrations that vary in style, these are scarce books with less than 50 copies available on AbeBooks.

The day before the Covid-19 lockdown began in New York, Roberto and Peter decided to have a “last supper” and cook four recipes from the books. Using minimal video equipment, simple, quality ingredients, and their raw passion for food, the two friends created a lively short nfilm that celebrates the cookbooks and Italian cuisine.

We tracked down Peter and Roberto as the Covid-19 lockdown continued, and asked some questions about the cookbooks, their documentary and the joy of Italian cooking.

AbeBooks: Tell us about the books. Where did you first see them? What are they like?

Peter: “It goes back pretty far. A friend’s father and his grandfather were avid readers and collectors of books and comics. His grandfather went to Italy regularly and had a few of these cookbooks, and we, as teenagers, were paid to clean and organize all these books. We stumbled upon the cookbooks and we both fell in love with them. They jump out at you. They weren’t my books but I never forgot them. Over the years, I built my business and lived in various places, and I sometimes thought ‘where are those books?’ I couldn’t even remember the name of the series. I started hunting around the Internet and found they were called the In Bocca series and I started buying them up. Once I got one or two, I fell in love with them again and I only recently completed the set. It took a long time. Roberto and I did a trip to Italy where we really bonded as friends and afterwards I gave him one of the books as a thank you. The Roma book, which is where his family is from.”

AbeBooks: The art work is eye-catching, not typical 1970s style. They look a little like a graphic novel?

Roberto: “This Roma book blew my mind right off the top. The cover was a full illustration, from hand-painted transfers, and the pages were from recycled rough oatmeal. There were a lot of bright colors from different regional artists and different themes from food to politics, history and poetry. They really do capture your imagination unlike any other cookbook I have seen. They transcend food and go into the culture of Italy. You get a sense of the country and the people, and their love for the land. They just kind of attack you with these wild illustrations and colors.”

Peter: “The outside is cardboard but inside the illustrations are extremely vibrant. The illustrations are quirky and strange, and have a bit of meaning to them. Sometimes they are just having fun with you – Mount Vesuvius blowing up with pasta sauce or the Coliseum overflowing with Carbonara.”

Striking illustrations on cardboard covers

AbeBooks: And the cardboard covers. Are they are fragile?

Roberto: “Yes, that makes them cool. They are made from a material you really don’t want to make a cookbook with. They are delicate and easily bend at the corners. They almost have an organic lifespan, which I think is beautiful when you are talking about food and culture.”

AbeBooks: Which recipes did you decide to cook?

Peter: “That was a hard decision. There were so many weird quirky dishes. We had to reel it in a bit with our decision-making. I made Milanese. We both have a minor obsession about that dish, and have crawled around Milan looking for the best ones.”

Roberto: “We did four dishes – Vitello tonnato, which is thinly sliced veal with a tuna sauce, which if it doesn’t sound good to you, you’re wrong because it’s amazing.  Rigatoni with a chicken liver sauce, which both of us raised an eyebrow to. It sounded funky but turned out to be amazing too. We then did a classic Suppli, that’s rice balls, or Arancini. Peter helmed that dish and slayed it. We’ve made that dish several times since and you can see my body has changed since discovering this recipe. The final one was the Milanese chop. It’s a comfort food and if you do it right and use the right amount of butter, which is the size of small baby actually, it comes out like everything that is good in the world.”

There’s a graphic novel quality to the illustrations (Pic: italyinbocca.com)

AbeBooks: What did you learn by cooking the recipes?

Peter: “Roberto and I are close friends and have traveled a lot together. We share the same passions. We wanted to prove that we could try and make these dishes. I had never really made risotto, and it came out nicely. I just went for it and I had Roberto to keep me in check. It’s all in the ingredients. We’ve talked about it multiple times. We are not cooks, we are home cooks but we have taste. We came to realize the ingredients should be the best ingredients.”

AbeBooks: So the lockdown started and you spent your time editing the film?

Roberto: “I’m an editor and mostly direct commercials. We made this film just because I happened to have a camera with me. We didn’t have a reason or point. As we were putting together the footage, all this horrible news from coming from Italy. It was the beginning of the pandemic and they were getting hit harder than anywhere else. It affected how the film turned out. We wanted people to remember all the great things about Italy and realize that they are suffering and need help.”

Handwritten recipes of regional dishes (Pic: italyinbocca.com)

AbeBooks: What are you going to do with the film?

Roberto: “It has become clear that this could easily become an on-going project. We’ve had chefs calling and it has touched a lot of people. We weren’t expecting that, but we made it with love and it’s a really authentic piece of material. We can see it being a series, there are 20 books and 20 regions. We are now talking to various people to develop it into a bigger project.”

AbeBooks: Should the In Bocca cookbooks be republished?

Roberto: “We hope so. The day after we released the film, the daughter of the man who started Il Vespro, the original publishing company, called us. She was on the phone telling us about how this was her father’s biggest project and something he really cared about. She hadn’t heard about the books for 30 years and then all of sudden these two kids from New York made this video. She said the handwriting in the book was her aunt’s. It blew my mind. So yes, I can see these books being republished, hopefully in the same format because the cardboard covers are so unique. People love cookbooks, they are the closest thing we have to spell books in the real world.”

Learn more about the In Bocca film, the cookbooks, and Peter and Roberto, at their website.

Find copies of the In Bocca cookbooks.

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