Huddled in a white SUV, my new friends the Bonaminios from the Italian American Club and I deliberated whether to weather the rain or call our game. Putting our faith in the bocce and Bacchus, we drew up our hoods and hit the court. As we played, the rain trailed off. It was brisk but beautiful at Municipal Park, where the bocce court is sandwiched between the setting sun and the quiet rush of the river.
The Bonaminios are a team from the Italian American Club's bocce league. The team, collectively called the Bocce Babes and the Four Balls, are Nanci, her husband Tony, her brother-in-law Agostino and his wife Marie.
The setup for bocce is simple. Bocce courts are long and narrow, usually with concrete edges, like shuffleboard enlarged and at ground level. You can find courts at Julia Davis, Ann Morrison and Municipal Park, which is home of the IAC's league games. Agostino pops the cork on some homemade vino and Nanci plants the scoreboard in the ground. I sip the spicy red wine as Agostino explains how bocce works.
There are five balls: the pallino and four bocce. The pallino, a small white ball, is thrown first past the center court mark. That thrower then throws the first bocce, usually a large lacquered wooden ball.
The objective of the game is to toss or throw the bocce underhand to get it closest to the pallino. Disputes over distance are inevitable, and when standing at the far end of the court, looks can be deceiving. Tony and Agostino didn't bring a measuring tape on this day, so they measure and re-measure with their fingers and feet.
Nanci, Tony, Agostino and Marie all have different throwing stances. Nanci takes her place in the throwing box, legs together, then crouches and releases the bocce mid-swing. I mimicked her, and some of my first attempts struck the back wall, which removes the bocce from play, or rolled short and cockeyed on the crushed-oyster surface of the court.
After a good throw, Agostino explained when they first started playing, Nanci would tell him to set his wine down so he could throw better.
"This is my counter balance 'cause I have the bocce in one hand and the wine in the other. It keeps me steady," he said.
I tried Agostino's stance with success. My team was ahead but that didn't last long. Nanci pitched the last bocce, a sweet shot that sailed in close to the pallino and knocked our balls out of scoring range. In one throw, we went from two points to none. Bocce can turn at any moment.
"It can be stressful. That's when you start drinking," joked Nanci.
If you've never played bocce, the IAC are the people you want to learn from.