Bocce Ball? Really?

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A dear friend of mine just downsized and traded a much too big house for one of those 55 plus communities that have always reminded me of the Stepford Wives. For them the move has been great as they traded what was becoming a couch potato life for one filled with social events. They have become champion Pickle Ball players (What the Hell is Pickle Ball?), and recently invited me to watch them compete in a Bocce tournament.  I went because I love them, and I have the fondest memories of the game that was an important part of my youth.

In case you don’t know, Bocce is a ball game similar to bowling where instead of knocking down pins, the players vie for who gets closest to the little ball called a palline (aka, Jack, aka known in my family as “the pill”).  The game’s roots date back to Ancient Rome and it made its way to America with the tide of immigrants who came here from Italy.  Although it was originally played only by those immigrants, its popularity has increased widely over the years.  In NY, both in the city and Long Island, Bocce courts are common in parks and there are even Leagues.  In fact, there even is a Bocce Club in trendy South Hampton.

For my family, Bocce came with them from Sicily. They loved playing it and for immigrants grateful for a roof over their head and a job, it was an inexpensive form of entertainment.  The men in our family all worked with their hands, mostly in the construction trades and although they never would consider themselves poor, it would be many years before they would pay money to be entertained!

Although every one of the family houses had ample space for a bona fide bocce court, none of them had one.  They played the game best on the grass, which is harder than playing it on a court.  Grass hampers the true roll of the ball and the lumps and bumps in the turf make it difficult to judge the speed you need to reach the pill.  If the grass was occupied by the kids or the rest of the family during an outdoor party, the men would take their game out front and play on the sidewalk or even in the street.

The bocce set consists of 8 large balls and the palline. The sets our parents owned all came from Italy; bought downtown in Little Italy at an Italian specialty store and delivered in a wooden crate; the balls nestled in a layer of straw, were dipped in wax to protect them.  They had to be boiled to get the wax off before you could play with them.

Once they were ready for play, they were transferred to a repurposed duffle bag from World War II (we don’t waste much). All eight balls were the same color; four plain and four with two lines etched on each side.  Back in the day it was no easy task to see which teams’ ball was closest to the ‘pill’, which made it harder to see who you had to beat, which showcased the skill level of the players even more. Today’s sets feature red and green balls and take away the challenge of who’s ball is who’s!

The game itself is played by two teams from one to four players on a team-each throwing one ball at time to see who gets closest to the pill. If your team is close, then the other team throws and vice versa until all the balls have been thrown.  A ball is a point; start by counting all the balls of the team closest to the pill and stop counting as soon as the other team has a ball closer than you.  12 wins the game

As kids, we used to love to pitch that ball as hard as we could to knock the opponent out of the way.  Our fathers saw the game differently, a game of finesse, which is why we kids were rarely invited to play with the men.  They could ‘butch’ the ball, which entailed pitching it, underhand, high in the air in a graceful arc.  It would land with a thud right close to the ‘pill’ and not roll an inch. My maternal grandfather, a tiny man that everyone called “Popie”, was a master at the game.

Bocce is also a game of inches and was NEVER played without a ruler to measure closeness to the pill when the eye just won’t get it done. The men used a wooden ruler, not a tape measure.  That ruler, which opened like an accordion, was a key tool in their carpenter trades…every home had at least three or four of them. Their were no rullers at the tournament I had come to watch; my uncles would have been appalled!

Among the more memorable games from my youth were those that pit the aunts against the uncles. My mom and one of the Aunts were the best of the women players and usually gave the uncles a run for their money. When all the aunts played, it was a hoot as there was always more laughing than serious play.  When the men played, it was often pretty serious, and more than a few friendly arguments happened over just who was closest to the pill.

Although, Bocce was an important part of every family gathering when the weather was good, it was not nearly as important as “Boss and Underboss”, the drinking game that followed every round of Bocce.  The drinking game is officially called Passatella, but the family just called it Boss and Underboss.  It followed every Bocce game and every card game of Brisc played in the family. Brisc is another story…
The players gather in a circle alternating team members.  They throw out fingers, a sort of Rock-Paper-Scissors but with cocktails!   At the same time each player throws out their fingers they call out their guess as to the sum of all fingers shown. Guessing the sum correctly earns a player a point. The first player to earn three points wins and is declared ‘boss’. Second round is played to determine ‘underboss’. The pool of drinks is determined by the number of players in the game.  8 players=8 drinks.  The drinks, usually beer in 10 ounce glasses are set out on the table.  First to drink is the boss who offers a drink to the underboss. Drinks are supposed to be downed in one gulp, no sipping.  Then the fun starts. The best games are when the boss is from one team and the underboss from the other. The ‘boss’ will suggest who gets the next drink and the underboss must agree.  If they can’t agree, the boss drinks them all.  Often, they end up leaving one man dry, which can be a big mistake if that man ends up ‘boss’ or ‘underboss’ in the next round.  When the aunts played the uncles, they delighted in leaving the men dry if they could….and the ladies would drink ‘em all!

The game is sill an important part of our family. Some of the older cousins who inherited their parent’s set, have dug them out of that corner in the garage and made a game part of their Barbeques. The Family’s Gen 3 are honing their skills at the bocce courts that have sprung up in the parks in the area…loving the fact that they can throw the ball hard and send their opponents flying…. just like we did.

By the way, my friends team lost the tournament, but afterward,  I taught the whole club how to play Boss and Underboss….upgraded from small beers to Margherita shots and I am sure future events will be funnier lubricated by a little Tequila….


  • Ann Boutcher

    Ann Boutcher has a knack for finding insights and humor in everyday moments. Until now, her published writing has been limited to work, but now, thanks to this wonderful opportunity as a guest editor, the world will get to witness firsthand her humor, life experiences and the gift of gab she brings to the pages of The Three Tomatoes.

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