Driving by the entrance to Mt. Lebanon Park, you might not even notice the bocce courts next to the tennis center. But drop by during a game, and the lively Italian music blasting from speakers and the infectious laughter drowns out the hectic Mt. Lebanon environment around you. Stick around for a few minutes, and you’ll quickly learn why these “bocce boys,” as some people call them, love to spend so many mornings and afternoons together playing the classic Italian game.
The bocce courts are open to the public, but Sunday mornings belong to the Calabria Bocce Club of Mt. Lebanon. The members say they love the game for its inclusivity and the social atmosphere it creates. The group of South Hills residents, which has been going strong since the 1990s, includes men of all ages, many from strong Italian backgrounds. Bocce allows them to celebrate their heritage and compete at a game they’ve known and loved for more than 20 years.
“It’s a part of our Italian blood,” says club member Pete Santore.
The competition is serious but not too serious. Camaraderie is the main goal. “We made very close friends; we like each other’s company, and we love some of the dialect that they speak, and the music-a!” Mt. Lebanon resident Riccardo “Dick” Ponzio says with a playful Italian accent.
The club is a social experience rich with culture and civility. “We have coffee, espresso and biscotti every Sunday after the game,” says Ponzio. “But we don’t talk politics or religion. That’s never brought up.”
The other thing that’s missing is women. Some of the wives of the members attend occasionally, but just to watch. This is a boys’ club.
The members pride themselves on being die-hard bocce players all year round, unafraid of cold temperatures (although they might succumb to rain or snow). “As long as the weather holds up, we play,” says Santore.
Raffaele Scarpino has a never-ending passion for the game. “I could play for 24 hours a day,” he says.
Bocce is relatively simple and definitely ancient. The bowling-style game (bocce is the plural of “bowl” in Italian) dates back to 5000 B.C. in Egypt, where the basic rules were developed. The game had made its way to Greece by 800 B.C. The Greeks taught the game to the Romans, and it was soon popularized throughout the Roman Empire.
Bocce can be played between two players or in teams of two, three or four. To start a match, the first team to go (often chosen by coin toss) throws a smaller ball, called the pallino, from one end of the court to the other. Each team is given four larger balls to toss, in an underhand motion, with the goal of landing closest to the pallino. The score is counted after all eight balls have been used. Points go to the team with the closest ball to the pallino, and more points come from having more balls closer to the pallino than the other team’s closest ball. The total number of points needed to win can vary, but often the team that first scores 12 points wins the game.
The players may keep the peace in their conversations, but the matches are competitive—especially the tournaments, where the winner earns a trip to Italy paid for by the club.
You can find the guys playing all throughout the week. And while Sundays are more exclusive to club members, they encourage newcomers to join them on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 to 3 p.m and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Rather get your own group to go? There is no cost to use the courts and no reservation is required. Bocce balls are available for free loan at the ice rink with keys or driver’s license used as collateral.