- Associated Press - Saturday, February 14, 2015

NORRISTOWN, Pa. (AP) - Silvano Pieri survived World War II in a small village near Lucca, Italy, and came to America in 1946. A retired lamp-maker, Pieri has hands as big and tough as catcher’s mitts and his accent is as thick as tomato paste.

But when he rolls a bocce ball with his classic soft touch, it looks like a supple hand gently turning a key.

The secret to his game: “Lots of concentration. It comes from up here,” Pieri said, tapping his brow on a recent Wednesday night at the Mount Carmel Bocce Club in Norristown. “And it goes to your arm.”

A century ago, clubs like Mount Carmel thrived on the cohesiveness of Norristown’s large, mainly Italian immigrant population. Over the years, many of the ethnic associations dwindled as Italians spread across the region and the Montgomery County seat became nearly one-third Hispanic.

Now it falls to leagues like Mount Carmel’s to preserve tradition while introducing new generations to the sport.

So almost nightly, cagey bocce ballers like the 87-year-old Pieri and his fellow native Italian, Cesare Palma, 67, of Plymouth Meeting, share the courts with relative newbies like Doug Hargrove, his wife, Beth, and their four pals, all in their 40s and American-born.

The Hargroves and their friends (Steve and Sue Messmer, Alan and Donna Rowe) took up bocce three years ago as a group pastime - like bowling, only more exotic.

“Almost all of us were empty-nesters and we were looking for something to do,” said Sue Messmer. The first time they walked into the club and saw the level of play, she said, “we were deer in the headlights. Oh no, what had we gotten ourselves into?”

Undeterred, they formed a team, the Bocce Buds. Palma’s team, the Nobodies, took the Buds under their wings and schooled them.

There are bocce leagues across Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Most courts are outdoors. Mount Carmel is among the handful, including a couple in South Philadelphia, that defy the cold with indoor courts.

With its two courts, cash bar, short-order kitchen, and crowded calendar of winter league matches, the 108-year-old club “where playing ball in the house is allowed” is a hive of daily rivalries and living history.

“There are seven venues for bocce within six miles of my house, all (outdoor) courts,” said Dave Fusco, 59, a leading booster of the sport in Norristown.

‘Came back good’

Defying the 1990s naysayers who thought bocce’s time had come and gone, Fusco built two courts in the Elmwood Park section of Norristown in 1995 and spawned a league that today has 500 members, a third of them younger than 30.

The sport “really came back good,” said Ralph Santori, 84, of Norristown, a retired bakery salesman so steeped in the sport that a photo of him from the 1930s adorns a Mount Carmel wall. In it, Santori is a small boy in shorts, hefting a bocce ball in front of the championship team of men in shirts and ties.

Sometimes described as a cross between bowling and shuffleboard, bocce is Italy’s version of a range of international games in which the objective is to toss or roll four, two-pound balls as close as possible to a small target ball called the pallina. The team with the closest ball wins a point and gets an additional point for each ball that is closer than any of the opponent’s balls.

Young and old

A “bell ringer” is when all four of your team’s balls are closest to the pallina. The equivalent of a baseball grand slam, it is celebrated with the clang of bells at opposite ends of Mount Carmel’s roughly 13-by-70-foot courts. The first team to 11 points wins a game. Two out of three games wins the match.

Old-timers say they played by stricter rules in Europe, including having to call your shot before attempting to knock away an opponent’s ball.

Players pay $10 a head for league membership. And, increasingly, immigrant devotees are passing on the love and lore of the game to American millennials and Gen-Xers.

Immigrants “had to find something to bond over when they got to America. Bocce seemed to be it,” said Lisa Timiniski, a Mount Carmel league organizer who learned to play at the Conshohocken Bocce Club down the block from her childhood home.

About a decade ago, bocce began to catch on with a younger crowd, she said: “Now it seems like the thing to do around here at night.”

Mount Carmel team names put a modern spin on the old-world game - Fuhgetabocce, Bocce Lushes, Bocce Bums, Bocce Buds, Hit or Miss, Tap That, Bada Bing Bada Bocce, and Come On Man, to name a few.

A recent match between the Bocce Buds (the Hargroves’ crew), and the Bocce Bums was a nail-biter. Both teams were 4-and-7 going into the night.

The Bums took the first game, 11-7. The Buds stormed back, winning the second game, 11-2. The Buds had an early lead in the third when the Bums began their comeback.

“More oomph!” said one Bum, encouraging his teammate to throw the next ball a little harder.

Within minutes, the Bums had edged the Buds, 11-8, for the match. They went to the bar for celebratory glasses of limoncello and orangecello.

“Many of the ethnic-based churches” that were magnets for bocce “have closed their doors. But the tradition lives on through something like this,” observed Mike Rotz, 45, of Bridgeport, a software tester, who took up bocce seven years ago and is a skillful Bum - of Irish and Polish heritage.

“Think about it,” he said. “It’s the story of America. Stuff comes over. It gets changed a little bit. And everyone embraces it.”





Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, https://www.inquirer.com

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