Sat August 10, 2013
Bocce Ball: From Old-World Sport To New-School Phenomenon
On the corner of H and 12 streets, across from the auto parts store sits a decently sized Italian restaurant and bar called Vendetta. Inside, there's a wooden bar and brick walls salvaged from churches in upstate New York and Maryland, and authentic Italian advertisements line the walls. Upstairs, old restored Italian Vespas hang from the ceiling.
But something about Vendetta is unique. Vendetta is one of six bars in the Washington, D.C., area with a bocce ball court right in the bar. Actually it has two courts — one upstairs and one downstairs. The bar joins a growing trend across the nation of integrating a sport characterized by older Italian men with a young crowd of socializing bar-hoppers.
Vendetta recently hosted the DC Bocce League, a group of young men and women, usually in their mid-20s to late 30s. They, along with the rest of the restaurant's patrons, drank, talked, ate ... and played bocce.
The rules are simple: There are two teams, and the match begins with a member of one team throwing a small ball, called the pallino or jack, from one end of the court to another. Then, the teams switch off throwing larger balls, called the bocci, at the jack. The team closest to the jack after all team members have thrown the balls, wins the point.
The balls are usually made of wood, metal or plastic, and played on a court of Har-Tru clay, dirt or crushed oyster shells.
In the early 1900s, Italians from the northern end of the peninsula, around Liguria, immigrated to America. They brought many things with them, among them the game of bocce. Since then, the stereotype was that this game was purely for old Italian men. No children or women were allowed to play, says Benji Tosi, who's played bocce since 2002 and has won eight U.S. bocce championships.
"For them, it was a way to get away from the wife and the kids. Where they could drink and smoke and cuss and gamble, maybe," says Tosi, who is based in San Francisco. "They kept to themselves when they played bocce ball and it was a hard community for outsiders to crack."
So why, after years of the stereotype of bocce being a game for old men, are younger people taking up the sport? Bocce-goers at Vendetta say it's because the game is social, fun and anyone can play.
"It's all inclusive," says DC Bocce League co-founder Sarah DeLucas. "Men and women are good at it. Even things like darts and pool, traditional bar games, a lot of women don't feel comfortable playing those games against men because they think they're not going to be good at it. And with bocce, that's never an issue."
DeLucas and friends John Groth, Rachael Preston and Gautam Chowdhry created DC Bocce League in 2004. Since its original 80 members, the league has spread to five other cities across the country and grown to 9,000 members.
"They want an excuse to hang out with friends," DeLucas says. "They want something that's going to get them out of the house, outside after work or at the bar after work. Bocce is the perfect way to bring people together."
Andrew Benzer, a seven-year bocce league player, grew up playing bocce on the beaches of Lake Michigan. When he moved to D.C., he saw a crowd of young people walking by with their DC Bocce League shirts and a case of beer.
"I thought, 'Hey, that sounds like something I'd be interested in doing,' " Benzer, 30, says. "It's always been a place to meet people in my peer group."
After that, he was hooked.
Billy Laxton and Kris Garcia, two lawyers in their mid-30s, were looking for a bar to hang out at. But not just any bar, something more than a bar. They'd walked past Vendetta a few times and decided to go in one night. They brought fellow lawyers Drew Turnier and Matt Downer along.
"It's a civilized game that brings people together," Downer says of bocce. But Laxton interrupts with "it's mostly for the booze."
And that's the draw: a social game at a social gathering. Drinking and playing. The two go hand-in-hand, literally: a bocce ball in one hand, and a drink in another. And that's something Bill Higgins, CEO of Real Restaurants, which provides services to restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area, thinks makes bocce such a great game for young people.
"Sports that you can do and drink at the same time are fun," Higgins says. "It's a sport with an attitude that is very conducive to enjoying yourself."