Bocce, Italian bowling, is for everyone, even the chronically feeble like myself. I came early to the game thanks to a high Catholic upbringing. Catholic education was responsible for my introduction to bocce, at the end of a trip to a shrine.
With hot weather came the Italian excuse for extended picnics: the holy pilgrimage. With myself as the only non-Italian passenger, the congregation of The Holy Rosary Church travelled in a battered pink coach, hundreds of miles in search of a miracle, even if it was only to cure a niggling cough or troublesome bunions.
It seemed only fair that on return from praying on bended knees up flights of 500 steps, we were rewarded by three days of bocce-ball.The tournament was always advertised throughout our town in the same way – ‘The Only Bocci-Ball Tournament’ – for the simple reason that it was.
Against All Odds
The èmigrè bocce-festa was open to everyone. The best part was when you accidentally hit a ball, when everyone began blowing kisses, exclaiming ‘bocce, bocce kiss kiss.’ Since our version of the game was played on uneven ground, prone to mysterious overnight bumps, any movement was seen as a blessing from above.
But what is real bocce, played in the land where it all began? Created in the early years of Christianity, the game initially involved stones aimed at a target directly ahead, rather like bowling played with one pin. The difference was that with bocce, the object was to land as close as possible to the main ball or pallina, and not to hit it.
Bocce, derived from the vulgar Latin bottia (ball), was a favourite of Roman soldiers and continues to be played to this day. It may be played indoors in a bowling alley or outdoors on grass or pavement. It requires a stretch of between 60 to 80 feet. The game involves four balls, with each player bowling until the ball is closest to the pallina or all the balls have been used.
The Finer Points
With chess-like stealth, you may even choose to place your ball in front of the pallina, thus balking your opponent. Bocce is played in three ways: standard, raffa or volo. With standard bocce the balls are rolled, whereas raffa requires balls to be pitched towards the targets. Finally, the connoisseur bocce player chooses volo which is similar to raffa but with brass balls instead of the usual fibreglass or hard plastic ones.
My entry into bocce native-style happened in the Communist heart of Italy – Corregio, in Emilia Romagna. I was being driven along Lenin Avenue and a street named Marx in neighbouring Carpi, when my friend Massimo shook his head sadly, saying: ‘Wait until you see the communist collective pizzeria and bocciodromo. It is a terrible place. I warn you not to go.’
It was no use. That very evening, I cycled to the Olimpia Bocciodromo, expecting to find grumpy soldiers in red arm-bands. Instead the Olimpia was full of grand political intentions of affordable food for everyone. The elderly male waiters wore worn-out smiles and shiny faux-tuxedo trousers with a puckered stripe down the leg. The bandleader look was rounded off by a saggy waistcoat with a flourish of wrinkled gold piping. For once, I out-dressed the Italians. For a pizza the size of a bin-lid, a carafe of local Lambrusco, salad and grappa thrown in because I didn’t finish my food, which worried the owners, I paid four UK pounds. Emboldened by the People’s Generosity, I asked the 86-year-old cashier if I might watch Bocce-ball in the next room. He gave me a smile delicately laced with derision. ‘Prego,’ he said.
The moment I entered I realised my mistake. This was the domain of men aged 50-plus. Around 100 pot-bellied, red-cheeked card-carrying communists froze when I entered in a fur coat that thankfully looked fake as hell.
The only bocce player was a dead-ringer for Roberto Benigni. Dressed like a 1940s ballet-teacher in pullover, loosely knotted cravat and pleated trousers, he was springing along the alley and flinging balls as if they weighed no more than confetti. Next thing I knew, an 80-year dipsomaniac was tugging at my sleeve and propositioning me through an enormous gap in his front teeth. ‘Buy you a drink?’ he said.
‘No thanks,’ I said, ‘I’m here to watch bocce. It’s a marvellous game,’ I added, ‘it should be an Olympic sport.’ Bocce patriots surrounded me, clapping me on the back. ‘Roberto’ called up; ‘Join me for a game?’
Playing to the Gallery
After shaking hands, 'Roberto' handed me the ball. By now a line of spectators was watching from above and cheering my every move. I waved at my admirers – and dropped the ball, observing it roll disconsolately along the alley and into the gutter. 'Roberto' gave me a grand smile. ‘Magnifica, bene, bene,’ he said, handing me the ball again. I chewed over whether or not it was a good thing to hit the other balls. This ball I flung. It hopped right over the other three. ‘Bellissima!,’ 'Roberto' smiled bravely. The crowd cheered.
'Roberto' skimmed along the alley, scooping balls up and carrying them back. While he was doing this, the spectators refreshed their drinks. 'Roberto' blew everyone a kiss. ‘Bravo, bella!’ they shouted. With whoops of laughter, they imitated me throwing balls. By the time I finally managed not to hit a ball, Roberto was sweating profusely.
The next day I told Massimo about my experience. ‘Bocce,’ I said, ‘is a difficult game and not to be sneered at.’ Everyone, I told him, was so encouraging.
‘Yes, very friendly.’ Massimo replied with a woeful glance, ‘Imagine what they say behind your back. Next time I think I go with you. I stay in the corner and watch.’