Mickey Vergara will tell you: The family that rolls together, holds together.
At a backyard game of bocce not so long ago, four generations of Vergaras, ranging in age from 6 to 80, all played at the traditional Italian pastime, all evenly matched.
Vergara, 75, a retired salesman for a paper company, also hosts competitions for his friends, which brings up another bocce truism: With a court in your yard, there’s little chance you’ll be bowling alone.
“It’s easy to play, it’s not physically demanding, it’s socially engaging,” said the Sandy Springs resident. “For balance, you need to have a glass of wine in your left hand and a ball in your right hand.”
Bocce is a 6,000-year-old bowling-like game, borrowed from the Egyptians by the Romans via the Greeks. These days, bocce seems as American as pizza pie. In Atlanta, it has crept into the fabric of the everyday, played by 80-somethings at senior centers and 20-somethings at the hippest bars.
The game is simple and can be played on any relatively flat area, be it beach or lawn, with or without a court. A small white ball, called the pallino, is tossed, and players take turns trying to get their bocce balls the closest to it.
This spring, Piedmont Park opened its first two bocce courts, and the crushed-granite surface and granite rails had bocce devotees oohing and aahing.
“We have had a lot of interest,” said Jan Fortune, director of programs with the Piedmont Park Conservancy, adding that one couple, planning a wedding at the park, were delighted that they would be able to play bocce after the ceremony.
‘Gotten to be trendy’
Has this quintessential summer sport rolled into the mainstream?
“It’s gotten to be a trendy kind of game,” said Pat King, enrichment coordinator at the Dorothy C. Benson Senior Multipurpose Complex, which added a bocce court last year.
The Benson Center sponsors a team that competes against seniors from other centers, including one from the Roswell Recreation Center. But their activity doesn’t match the bocce-rolling frenzy at Big Canoe, a North Georgia summer home/retirement community near Jasper.
There are about 200 people on the Big Canoe bocce roster, more than on the tennis roster, according to bocce player Mimi Zentgraf. “We’re kind of proud of that,” she said. Some 24 teams, with names like the Incredaballs, De-bocce-ry and the Matzoh Balls, compete spring and fall, raising money for the volunteer fire department and other causes and having a good time.
“We moved down from the Philadelphia area four years ago, because our grandbabies were down here; we saw there was a meeting for bocce, and we said, that’s something we can do,” said Zentgraf.
At the other end of the age spectrum are the urban singles playing bocce while they mingle. At Young Augustine’s, a Grant Park watering hole, “beer and bocce go hand in hand,” said chef and partner Andy Gonzales. Unlike regular old 10-pin bowling, “bocce attaches to a younger mind-set, maybe Euro-friendly, with more worldly experience,” he said. “It fits into bars that are up-and-coming now.”
It helps that it’s a one-handed sport, said partner Chris Johnson. Some patrons suggested he put a volleyball court under the towering red oak tree in the courtyard, but when customers have both hands busy, “that doesn’t sell any drinks.”
Getting good is hard
Plenty of other restaurants have installed bocce courts, and Michael Goot, of Ormsby’s in West Midtown, expects to see a league featuring teams from such gastropubs as Ormsby’s, Young Augustine’s, Leon’s in Decatur and Vickery’s in Glenwood Park. Goot even knows a brewery that would like to sponsor a tournament.
It hasn’t happened yet, perhaps because the average bocce player is a little too laid-back for citywide competition.
Or perhaps, said Joy Provost, because “it doesn’t take a tremendous amount of skill to play.”
Provost, a surety bond underwriter, and her husband Steve, a landscape architect, decided to install a modified court at their Decatur home when they tore up the yard for an addition to the house.
“It’s one of those games that is very simple to learn,” said Steve, “but it takes a long time to get very good at it.”
Bob Hogan can attest to that. Hogan, 50, of Kennesaw, has been trying to beat his mentor, Charlie Augello, 70, of Dunwoody, for two decades.
“I’ve never beat him once,” said Hogan, who built a court in his own yard when drought killed his grass.
Augello even beats Hogan with his bad hand. “I play lefty,” Augello shrugged, “I still win.”
Maybe it’s in the genes. Augello’s father, Salvatore, came to New York from Sicily in 1912, and Charlie grew up playing bocce on East 48th Street in Manhattan.
La bocce vita
He is among the transplants that make Atlanta’s La Societa Italiana a bocce powerhouse. A convivial powerhouse. Said senior member George DeBenedetto, “We drink a lot of wine, we spill a lot of wine too.”
Some wine — but no blood — is spilled during a gathering of La Societa at the Sandy Springs home of Mickey and Barbara Vergara. As members tossed bocce balls, listened to “Carmen” and shared dishes on the well-landscaped terrace, the accents of Chicago, Buffalo and the Queens served as reminders that the game flourishes in Georgia with the help of Northern blood.
Vergara’s court features a Georgia clay surface and a scoreboard painted like Italy’s tri-color flag. Scores are posted in Roman numerals.
The play is relaxed, but intense. In one exchange, Joe Perniciaro rolls a green ball that displaces Joe Vivona’s apparent winner, slowly carrying off the pallino as if it were pushing a baby carriage. Throughout the game, there is plenty of discussion about which ball is closer to the pallino, red or green.
To settle one debate, Frank Russo-Alesi, a bear-like retiree from Warner-Lambert, suggests: “You gotta show them how they do it in Sicily,” before pulling his belt from the loops of his khaki trousers. No whipping is administered. Instead, Russo-Alesi uses the belt as an impromptu tape-measure.
In fact, unlike its vicious lawn-sport relative, croquet, bocce seems to inspire filial unity and peace, if not outright love. Bocce: Let the good times roll.
Bocce in brief
● The word “bocce” comes from the Italian word for “ball,” “bowl” or “boss,” depending on whom you ask. In the United States, the word is pronounced the same as “baci,” which means “kisses” in Italian. The French game called “boule” or “petanque” shares origins with bocce.
● Players use eight 2-pound balls, half one color and half another (typically red and green), and a smaller white ball called the jack or pallino. Bocce can be played one on one, two on two or four on four. It also can be played on any smooth ground, with or without a defined court. “All you need is a semi-flat area where you can roll a ball,” says bocce enthusiast Mickey Vergara. “You don’t need 90 feet between the bases or a goal post.”
● Bocce courts are usually 8 to 13 feet wide and anywhere from 50 to 90 feet long and are usually finished with a dense, smooth surface like crushed granite. In an older form of the game, players use balls made of bronze. The newer game uses plastic resin balls.
● Galileo, Hippocrates and Emperor Augustus were all enthusiasts, claiming that bocce was a tonic for the body and soul.
www.bocce.com : The official Web site of the U.S. Bocce Federation.
www.lasocietaitaliana.org : The site of La Societa Italiana, Atlanta's Italian-American club.
www.piedmontpark.org/do/bocce_courts.html : Where to find information on Piedmont Park's new bocce courts.