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Who wants to play bocce? Game is getting more popular in NM

Editor’s Note: To celebrate 2013’s “Year of Italian Culture,” Davide Arminio, an Italian journalist studying in Albuquerque, is finding stories with an Italian connection in New Mexico.

There’s a game that’s becoming increasingly popular in New Mexico, and it’s not American. It’s bocce (also called “boccie” or “bocci” in English) and it’s one of the oldest games played by mankind.
Invented probably in ancient Egypt some five thousand years ago, spread throughout the Roman Empire, then solidified in its current form in Italy, bocce was initially brought to the New World in its British version. It’s said that George Washington was among the early players, and that he had a court built at his Mount Vernon’s manor. The game as we know it today came into its own thanks to Italian immigrants; hence it’s very popular where Italian heritage and identity are strongest – especially in California, Illinois and New Jersey. But it has become well-known throughout the country, including in New Mexico, to people who do not necessarily have Italian roots.

The game is played between two players or two teams of up to four players, in a court 78-90 feet long and 13 feet wide. Each team uses four balls. At the beginning of the game a small target ball called the “Jack” (or “Pallino” in Italian) is thrown out onto the court. Players seek to place their balls nearer to the target Jack than their opponents, or to displace the opponents’ balls and improve the position of their balls in relation to the Jack. Bocce can be played in a variety of ways using various rules.

The Albuquerque and Rio Rancho area has a relatively long-standing bocce tradition. A surprising number of private homes have bocce courts in the backyard, players say. John Paolino, one of the regular players at the Rio Rancho bocce courts, clearly remembers that “about twenty years ago there used to be some public courts in Los Altos Park, (near I-40) but then they were razed”. The same happened in Rio Rancho’s Haynes Park about fifteen years ago, where new tennis courts were built over the existing bocce courts. Therefore, the Italian community decided to rally. All three major Italian associations in the Albuquerque area (Club Culturale Italiano, Italian American Association and Sons of Italy) worked with the City Council to have new courts built. In August 2010 the Journal reported the inauguration of two new bocce courts in Haynes Park. The ceremony was attended by the honorary Italian vice-consul, Rosalba Maniaci.

The new bocce yards in Rio Rancho Haynes Park (Davide Arminio / For the Journal)

The new bocce yards in Rio Rancho Haynes Park (Davide Arminio / For the Journal)

Nowadays those two fields are regularly used at least every third Saturday of the month for a tournament organized by the Club Culturale Italiano. “In two and a half years we’ve only canceled the tournament once,” Joe Marchese, promoter of the bocce activity in Rio Rancho, says proudly. “We started the tournaments in 2010 simply to raise money for the Club, but the people enjoyed the game so much that we decided to keep on playing at least once a month, no matter what the weather conditions.”

The Albuquerque Bocce Club was instead founded in 2001 by the Levandoski family, and Trevor Levandoski has been its president ever since. “My wife belongs to an Italian family, but I had been already introduced to the game.  When I was young I lived in New York and used to play bocce with some Italian friends.” Initially started in 1995 as an informal group of about thirty fellows, the Albuquerque Bocce Club now has some two hundred members and continues to grow.

If you ask what people like most about the game, “To win” Marchese answers, laughing, but, he adds, “actually it’s the socializing aspect, being together to have fun and drink coffee.”  Levandoski also said during an interview, that “what I like most about bocce is its social aspect; you don’t play only to win, but also to socialize with other people.”

Each year in mid-July the Albuquerque Bocce Club promotes a tournament by invitation in the six-court Levandoski back-yard playing area. “It’s more like a party and a family reunion than a real tournament,” Levandoski explained. Old and young, competitive and non-competitive people are mixed together in teams in the effort to create new social ties and enjoyment. “One other good aspect of bocce is that it can be played easily, even at home,” Levandoski said, “and that emphasizes and helps  family life.”

Last September 14 the Albuquerque-based club hosted the first-ever “Napa in New Mexico” bocce tournament, named after the California valley renown for its vineyards, at Estrella del Norte Winery in Santa Fe. Levandoski’s dream is to open a restaurant with bocce courts, to stress even more the social aspect of the game.

Both the Albuquerque Bocce Club and Club Culturale Italiano always welcome new players.  Together they’re working on one of the most important public bocce competitions in the next months. It’s The Marchiondo Family Bocce Tournament, organized and promoted by the New Mexico Italian Film and Culture Festival, scheduled to take place this coming February 15 at the Albuquerque Convention Center. “It will be the first-ever Festival bocce tournament, for the benefit of the University of New Mexico Children’s Hospital,” Maria Arancio Berry, director of the Festival Committee, explains. The event will be open to the public, intended to be a great opportunity to get acquainted with the game and learn the basic rules – and maybe fall in love with it.

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