Bocce has been a staple in Little Italy for as long as anyone can remember. But it was always a game the old folks played.
"I never played as a kid," says Francis Blatterman, who helps run the Tuesday and Wednesday night Little Italy Bocce League at the D'Alesandro Park courts, off Stiles Street. "Some of the older men, they played."
That's a refrain you hear often from players like Blatterman, who's 72. But it's a sentiment that no longer rings true. In the 21st century, bocce has become cool.
And it's not just a game for Little Italy anymore.
"Five years ago, we started off with one league, in Federal Hill. People were like, 'What's bocce?'" says Todd Nagel, 32, spokesman for what started as the Baltimore Bocce League, but recently changed its name to Baltimore Social. "Now, this winter, we have seven spring bocce leagues. In winter, we play it indoors, in Mount Vernon. We have people who want to not do the other sports, but they're doing this."
In fact, the reason for bocce's surge in popularity can be found in the group's name change. The game, sort of a cross between horseshoes and duckpin bowling, is (usually) played in the great outdoors, but requires far more skill than athleticism — young and old, male and female, anyone can play bocce and, with a little work, get pretty good at it.
"It's not like football or baseball. You don't have to be super athletic," says Gianni Andracchio, 34, who plays in Little Italy's Thursday night Italian American Bocce League. "Anybody can learn the game. Anybody can throw a ball. It's pretty simple."
So it is. Usually played by teams of between four and 12 players, on courts roughly 10-feet wide by 60-feet long, bocce involves tossing larger, duckpin-sized balls (called bocce, Italian for "bowls") and getting them as near as possible to a smaller ball, called a "pallino." One team puts the pallino in play, then each team, in turn, tries rolling their bocce as close to it as possible.
In Baltimore, most bocce matches are played on the courts at D'Alesandro Park, opened in 1987 adjacent to the old St. Leo's parochial school and named in honor of former mayor (and U.S. congressman) Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr.
"As soon as you're old enough to get the ball across the line, you can start playing," says Scott Altpeter, 34, who plays in the Thursday night league. "And then, as long as your eyesight and your knees hold up, you can keep playing well into your 80s."
Little Italy's Rosie Apicella knows all about that. She started playing after her husband died in 2000 and is still going strong.
"I enjoy meeting the young kids. You'd be surprised how many want to learn," she says. "It's not a hard game. I'm 86, hon, so it ain't nothing physical."
The social aspect of bocce is emphasized, too — no surprise, given its egalitarian slant. The game, it turns out, is a perfect excuse for people to hang out together.
"Nobody down there says 'Come on, old man,' or 'Come on, young guy.'" says Dino Basso, a mainstay of local bocce competition. A player, by his estimation, for some 40 years, Basso lives in Arbutus and maintains a list of contacts that seems to include just about everyone who's ever rolled a bocce ball within a 10-mile radius.
"Everybody's on the same page, and you treat everybody with respect. You have a good time," says Basso, who runs the Thursday league.
"It's more about the quality of the people, rather than about the quality of the athlete," says Nagel, whose group plays on courts — some hard, like Little Italy's, but many on grass — everywhere from Canton and Federal Hill to Hampden and even Towson, at Calvert Hall College High School.
It's also a game where men and women can play on equal footing. "Years ago, it was only men that played bocce," says Blatterman. "Then women started playing, and it's a lot mixed now. Most teams have a mixture of men and women who play."
Adds Nagel, "We don't have separate rules for women. We have lots of women teams, and they do just fine. There's no advantage to being a guy."
Still, none of this rampant camaraderie means bocce players don't take their game seriously. There may be a lot of smiling going on, but the smiles are a lot broader on the winning side.
"I never bought into that whole thing, 'It's not whether you win or lose …'" says Blatterman, who's been playing organized bocce about seven years. "I'm always interested in winning."
Agrees Basso, "You're all there with one thing in common, to play bocce. You want to be competitive. And you want to win the game."
If you want to play
•For information on bocce leagues in Little Italy, go to promotioncenterforlittleitaly.org/bocce-courts.html.
•For information on leagues organized by Baltimore Social, go to baltimoresocial.com.