“I cannot, for the life of me, actually bocce.”
It seems like it’s always raining this summer in Pittsburgh, but on this overcast evening, the rain held off long enough for the teams with Major League Bocce to roll onto the Bloomfield courts. The players arrive a little before 6:30. Some have carpooled. Some are carrying in a six pack or small cooler.
Bocce is simply Italian lawn bowling, or, as Lou Biancaniello of Friendship tells me, “Italians just call it bowling.” His team, G.L.L.O.B. (Gorgeous Lou and the Ladies of Bocce, a punny riff inspired by the Netflix show “GLOW”) are rolling and as I watch, Angelica Runova says that Lou is the Italian ringer of their team. “I cannot, for the life of me, actually bocce,” she adds.
There are two courts here and both of the early matches are going strong as the tail end of rush hour traffic begins to slow down above us on the Bloomfield Bridge. At the end of Darsie Street, the last house is just a few feet from the bocce courts, separated by a chain-link fence. Lou Scanga steps out onto his stoop with his daughter Kenley and watches the matches for a while. Scanga grew up here, one house over, in fact and, as a lifelong Bloomfield resident, has watched bocce for all of his years.
Sometimes called ‘the sport of kings,’ bocce is derived from the Latin ‘bottia,’ which is simply the word for ball. To play, you toss a small ball called a pallino onto the court. Then, players toss their balls and try to get closest to the pallino. It requires pretty good eye-hand coordination, but the nature of the game allows for all ages and genders to compete equally, which is important to this league.
“What can we do that doesn’t require so many people, that doesn’t have a gender requirement? Because part of the challenge had been that, for kickball for example, you had to have x-number of women. We wanted to avoid that [to make it easier to participate],” said Rachel Preston. Preston is one of the founders of Major League Bocce, the umbrella organization of which this league is a part.
When the league was conceived, Preston was living in D.C. and working at a high stress job. A group of friends was looking for ways to socialize and blow off steam. Someone suggested bocce. They started playing, then formed a league. It took off. Eventually they branched out to other cities, such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Richmond, Charlotte and Austin.
Pittsburgh has a rich history with bocce. In neighborhoods like Bloomfield and Morningside, you can still find bocce being played regularly — these Bloomfield courts are in frequent use. Preston is aware of some of these histories. “We’re not trying to displace the regulars from their courts,” she says.
Giuseppe Francioni, captain of the Lucchesi Rosso team, gets out a contractor’s tape measure the distance of the green and red balls surrounding the pallino. Bocce may not require you to train like LeBron James, but it sometimes does require fine measurements to determine scoring. While he measures, I chat with two of the women from another team. They’re older than most of the folks here, but the league has players of varying ages, from youngish tech workers to Pam Glaser and Paula Sokolow, who both come over to Bloomfield from Wilkinsburg.
When the early matches are over, some players hang around the courts as the later matches get rolling, but most head up to Lot 17 for a few drinks. Glaser and Sokolow decline, joking that they’re “the grandmas of this.”
Bocce was played by Roman soldiers during the Punic Wars against Carthage. It survived the Dark Ages is thought to have been played by the likes of a couple of guys named Galileo and DaVinci. And it’s been played in Bloomfield since the first Italian immigrant set foot in the neighborhood to start life in America.
Bocce is an ancient sport and some of the people who use these courts are, themselves, quite ancient. When Anthony Bourdain was in town, he met a man at the bocce courts who was 103 years old. The sport may be ancient, but in the modern era, I frequently hear things like, “Hey Nick, get off your phone, you gotta play.” These are folks who aren’t fighting wars, but often are working in IT doing things like software development and software architecture, (whatever that may be.) But like soldiers, what brings them to the bocce courts is a sense of camaraderie and a chance to let go.
“We don’t play for the sport,” Runova says. “We play for the fun.”
Jody DiPerna is a Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org