The most intriguing gathering at Burlington’s Oakledge Park on a recent Sunday afternoon is not the raucous barbecue where the clang of horseshoes mingle with amped-up covers of “Long Cool Woman” and “Hang on Sloopy.” Rather, it’s the crowd gathered around what appear to be two oversized sandboxes at the northeastern end of the park. The people are eagerly peering into the pits, examining the blue and white spray-painted lines, and throwing around terms like “zone” and “pallino.”
This is the Burlington Bocce Social, the grand opening of brand-new courts for the Italian bowling game at Oakledge, and the event marks a resurgence in organized games for northern Vermonters. “Burlington has more and more baby boomers,” says Dan Cahill, the recreation coordinator for Burlington Parks & Recreation. “This is an attempt to make our city more livable, especially for our aging population.”
According to the Confédération Mondiale des Sports des Boules — the France-based umbrella organization for bowling games — bocce has been around since 9000 B.C. Archeologists excavated stone balls buried next to a teenager, leading bocce enthusiasts to believe the balls must have been used for a game.
More concrete evidence comes from the Roman era, says the United States Bocce Federation. It holds that soldiers in the Punic Wars played games of bocce to relax between battles. That was until the early 1300s, when Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV declared the sport unfit for military men. Somewhere along the line, says the USBF, someone else decided that bocce was actually a good way to prevent rheumatism, and the bowling games — including the French variation of pétanque — began to spread around the world, especially throughout Europe. The USBF claims there are now about a million bocce players in the U.S.
Bocce arrived to the Burlington area with Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Where the Courtyard by Marriott now stands, bocce courts once drew families for post-church games on Sundays. “We’d have a stogie and a bottle of wine in our hands,” says Joe Maietta, a 77-year-old Burlington resident who began playing bocce at age 13 with his Italian grandparents. “The women watched while the men played.”
At today’s Social, Maietta is watching while Cahill and fellow bocce booster Zander Ponzo go over the basics of the game. Each court is about 11 feet wide and 80 feet long. The first player rolls a small ball — called the jack, palliney, pallino, pig or boccino — at least halfway up the court. Then he or she rolls a larger ball toward the jack; players alternate and, in the end, someone scores one or more points for the balls closest to the jack.
“With these courts, more strategy comes into play,” says Cahill. “You might be someone with the perspective of, ‘I’ve played out on the lawn; what’s the difference?’ But these offer a more consistent surface of play.”
The gravelly-sandy-clay mixture might be consistent, but, as this Sunday-afternoon debut demonstrates, the rules are anything but. Ponzo and Cahill have prepared a handout about bocce — available at Oakledge’s parking kiosk — with help from Bosnian bocce player Dzenan Karabegovic and the USBF.
As the founding forces behind the Burlington Bocce and Petanque Club, the trio worked with the National Italian American Foundation and the city’s department of Parks & Rec to build the courts, which cost about $5000. Oakledge was chosen over other Burlington parks because of its accessibility and defined green space. The club is helping to organize the first tournament for the Oakledge bocce courts for August 11 and lists rules on its handout.
Maietta has brought his own laminated instruction sheet, along with a canvas bag of balls. And that’s another area of contention: Some sets come with four green and four red balls along with a white or yellow jack; others come with four sets of two balls in different colors. The cost for a set ranges from about $30 to $150. Maietta says he is excited about the courts, but he clearly disagrees with some of Ponzo’s instructions on the game, and worries about the sport’s fractionalization and sometimes loosey-goosey approach.
“See, that’s wrong,” he says. “You can’t have this guy play his way and that guy play his way, and then I go in and play my way. Tournament time, what are you going to do?”
It’s this kind of vigor that partly characterizes the sport of bocce, however. Ponzo explains that he helped convince Burlington to build the courts with his eyewitness accounts of how pétanque vitalized communities in New Zealand. “There were a lot of people aged, 60, 70, 80, 90, playing and I think it kept them alive,” he says. “Not just playing bocce, but they had a focus, they had friends, they had a place to go, and they had competition.”
Indeed, the competition serves as an equalizing outlet, says Bruce Cahan, a Grand-Isle bocce player who has come to the Oakledge opening. “It’s not gender- or age-specific,” he says. “And we live as if we were laid-back, but then we get out there on the bocce courts and it gets competitive and it’s pretty cool.”
Cahan is a regular at the private bocce games of Tony Sini, a South Burlington artist who built his own bocce court several years ago after seeing some specialized ones in San Francisco. “A large group of people around here used to play a lot of softball, and now we’re getting older, we can’t run anymore,” says Sini, who sniffs that the Oakledge courts are a bit sterile and slow compared to his. “So I decided it would be nice to have a court.”
Sini’s games, which culminate in an October tournament — the prize is a large, customized beer tankard — are as much about the food and drink as the bocce itself, says Cahan. “It’s like a soirée,” he suggests.
Casual bocce players who have trampled grass “courts” with a cocktail in hand can find validation in the USBF’s official endorsement of the game’s sociability. “Bocce is a crucible in which ages and social class fuse and disappear,” the organization writes on its website. “On the court there are neither young people nor old people . . . The beginner can play with the veteran and the mechanic with the lawyer . . . It is often the beginning of long friendships.”
Cahan stops talking to watch Johanna Greco take her turn on one of the Oakledge courts. She is 12 years old, the youngest at the Burlington Bocce Social. Unless you count the toddler wailing from the Westfalia in the adjacent parking lot. Rather than distracting the players, children simply add to the liveliness of the environment, along with the passing sailboats, bike riders and couples who wander up with towels around their waists after a swim. The courts here — which will be finalized, and probably a bit faster, once the final surface arrives in a few days — occupy a space with some privacy, picnic tables and trees, but enough visibility to attract newcomers.
Greco, dressed in a pink T-shirt, capris and pink sandals, garners attention not for her age but for her provenance: Rome, Italy, which might also be the birthplace of bocce. She’s visiting her grandparents in Vermont. But Greco is unsure of her prospects on this sandy surface. “I play on the grass,” she explains.
Her first ball comes within a foot of the jack, which is an excellent toss and draws cheers from the crowd. Elsewhere around the courts, Ponzo is answering questions about bocce, which may be poised to finally distinguish itself from other backyard leisure sports.
In due time, of course. A woman from Québec meanders over to the courts and squints alternately at a sign explaining bocce and the players tossing balls. She asks, puzzled: “What, is this not croquet?”
Bocce socials will continue at Oakledge Park on Sundays at 5 p.m. from July 29 to August 26, and at 1 p.m. from September 2 to October 28. An equipment sign-out system is in the works, but for now it's BYO balls. For more information on bocce in Burlington or the August 11 tournament, call Burlington Parks & Recreation at 864-0123. See how they play at the Burlington Bocce Socail