My grandfather was a Southern man, a mirage between Naples and Salerno, chubby, short in structure, tan without trying. He was a simple man, spending most days sitting in his favorite chair, handkerchief in pocket and newspaper in hand. Only pausing to check his wrist watch every now and again. For the years that I did know him, he was calm and never raised his voice, maybe only once or twice at my nonna to find out when lunch would be served, but it was only ever innocently influenced by impatience and hunger.
Poppy we called him, the name like the flower, as my mom and I reflected one day chatting. “He was so easy-going!” I said to her, she agrees, “quiet, loving, a mamma’s boy until the day he died, but every so often, he’d lose his cool – over us kids, the house, and…games!” And it reminded me, Poppy loved to play games. In fact, he ran a bar in an Italian neighborhood of Philadelphia, a place known by word of mouth, but not necessarily a place to get a buzz on, but a gathering spot. A place to not only pass the time but get lost in competition, over a few rounds of cards. And the days when Poppy ventured down to the bar were some of the days he returned home more hot headed than ever before, those were the days luck was not on his side. But I am not talking Black Jack or Uno, but some Italian ones the men brought with them, along with their families, across the pond.
Le carte da gioco, playing cards, are not just games, but have evolved into a true symbol of Italian culture. It has been said that a deck of playing cards, originally tarot ones, first came to the scene in the fourteenth century, heavily influenced by the French and Spanish, first landing in Florence then making their way South to Naples. In the centuries that followed, cards began to circulate throughout the entire peninsula, first developing into a game but then also a lively event and occasion, undoubtedly in Italian fashion.
But to associate culture and lifestyle to playing cards may seem far off, not at all, not even close! Just like dialects, more than 30 official ones, each region has its own unique style, sometimes differing in card numbers and designs, and you guessed it, rules. But regardless of the infinite number of adaptations and variations that have been created, le carte da gioco seems to be the bridge between generations, regions, and the entire country itself, an opportunity, even after all these years, to come together, mothers or fathers, friends and children, and even strangers, to think, connect, play, and undoubtedly, have some good old fashion fun.
I am the first to admit I never took fancy to card games as a kid, even into adulthood. But once getting past the most obvious cultural shocks I experienced in Italy, I began to recognize this spirit of Italian competition just about everywhere. Bars, piazzas, on the train, at the beach, even between the stalls at my outdoor market. If there is a table, you can bet there is a deck of foreign-like cards being dealt, and if you are of age, some cigarette smoke and a little money added in for some extra motives. Maybe I was experiencing a new Roman identity, or maybe these games reminded me of my grandfather, but either way for the first time in my life, I began to marvel at these cards, finding myself staying an extra minute longer whenever I passed a new table. Not knowing anything about them, but pausing out of curiosity and admiration.
“But what are those fiery anziani playing over there?” I asked my friend one morning, sitting on the fringe of the piazza, enjoying my morning coffee abruptly interrupted by the shouts and parolacce of the group of elderly men directly in front of me. They were throwing down cards then carefully sweeping them away, sitting for hours. They even had a group of spectators. My friend rolled his eyes, “Gabby! they’re playing scopa, with le carte napoletane. This is NOT a casual affair.” And when you think you’ve finally come over the peak of cultural shock, you’re swept back down. But from that day, I learned quickly. There are a total of 4 styles, French, German, Northern, and Southern, and 16 styles of card packs. However, le carte napoletane are superior to the rest, those strange ones Poppy had and ones that could be found sitting in a drawer in just about every Italian household.
Compatible with Italy’s two national and most popular card games, Scopa and Briscola, these carte napoletane are the smallest in size, fitting perfectly in a back pocket. The Neapolitan deck consists of 40 cards, never numbered, but stamped with mesmerizing symbols in beautiful colors of reds and yellows, blues and greens. There are four suits, inspired by the social classes of the Middle Ages: Coppe (Cups); Danari (Coins); Spade (Swords) and Bastoni (Clubs) and then there are the three faces: Fante (Knave), Cavallo (Knight), and Re (King). So when I was ready to learn how to play, after memorizing the deck inside and out, I knew I had to go to the direct source itself: Naples, because sometimes the best way to learn in Italy is through observation.
So what exactly is Scopa? An Italian noun meaning “broom”, is easy enough to learn but difficult to master. Patience really is an Italian virtue when it comes to this one. You can play with two players or four in pairs, always sitting across from one another and playing for points. Before each game begins, the players must agree on the winning number of points, and command default being 21. Seems easy enough, right? Each player receives 3 cards and then 4 cards are placed facing upward in the middle. Each round ends when all players finish the cards in their hand and they receive another 3. The objective of the game is for players to capture cards, aka sweep, from the ones in the middle, giving the most points at the end of the game. Earning and counting points is where it gets a little complicated, but not to worry, ci vuole tempo (it takes time).
Then – there is Briscola, meaning trump, a personal favorite. One played at all times of year, Briscola is competitive, fast paced, and a trick game like Scopa. Warning, it’s incredibly addictive. Similar to Scopa played with 40 cards, the goal is to win the most points, but the type of Briscola played changes depending on the number of players. For example, with five it is called Briscola Chiamata, which has another mind of its own, or if you play with 3 players, pull one card away to arrive at 39. And if you’re playing in a set of two, which I’ve been told is the ultimate way to play, Italians call it Briscolone.
But regardless of whichever game or variation you choose to learn from and the amount of people spectating close by, make sure it’s done in the best way possible, the Italian way! The way I observed from the Neapolitans this summer: at the sea, sitting under an umbrella after lunch, in the middle of summer.
Other Card Games Played in Italy To Explore:
- Tre Sette: what may rank 3rd in popularity, Tre Sette is a 40-card, trick-taking card game, usually played in pairs with Italian or French suites.
- Buracco: originating from Uruguay that quickly diffused throughout Italy in the 80s. It is a Rummy-type game played with two decks of French cards.
- Bestia: meaning beast in Italian, it is a game with borrowed rules from Briscola and Tresette, and can be played amongst 3 to 10 players.
- Scala 40: meaning forty stairs, one that became popular after the First World War imported from Hungary, known as Rummy’s replacement.
- Sette e Mezzo: a card game almost identical to Black Jack typically played around Christmas time played with Italian cards.