Take one look at The Champ's steely stare down the boccie court and you get the feeling some people in Little Italy take this game seriously. Listen to the men jab at one another in Italian and you're sure.
"The Champ," otherwise known as Lelio Tomasina, 73, wore a hat with a crumpled brim. A sweater covered his flannel shirt. Teammates and opponents watched silently as he clutched a green, duckpin-size ball. Suddenly, he lurched forward and fired a swift underhand shot. It zipped down the narrow sand-filled lane and knocked his foe's red ball out of contention.
"This guy's the best," said one of the players.
Mr. Tomasina and his peers want to keep boccie, Italian lawn bowling, alive in Little Italy. They want it to become bigger -- there's even talk of international matches at tiny St. Leo's Park in the 1000 block of Stiles St.
That's why a dispute over the number of boccie courts in Little Italy has ignited a heated controversy among neighbors, some of them charging that a restaurateur tried to ditch their plans to expand both courts in St. Leo's.
The Little Italy Community Organization says Domenic and Mary Ann Cricchio, owners of the Da Mimmo Italian Restaurant, tried to work behind the scenes to expand only one court and eliminate the other. They say the Cricchios sought to use the space for tables and chairs behind the restaurant to help their business, which abuts the courts.
The Cricchios deny the charge, saying the matter is just a misunderstanding.
"That's public property, and we don't want [an outdoor] cafe to begin with," Mrs. Cricchio said of the disputed space.
"They're making a federal case out of nothing," her husband said.
But neighbors are not convinced.
They point to a Sept. 14 meeting the Cricchios had with Peter M. MacShane, business development director of the Baltimore Development Corp., and a city Department of Recreation and Parks architect.
The city officials left that meeting believing the Cricchios were speaking for the community and that the neighborhood wanted the arrangement with one boccie court and space for tables and chairs, according to minutes of the meeting prepared by Recreation and Parks.
News of the meeting sparked a neighborhood dispute that was resolved Monday when the city agreed, at the community association's request, to expand both courts.
But Giovanna Blattermann, an association member, said afterward that "typical machine-style" politics had been used in an effort to subvert the neighborhood's wishes.
"We will no longer tolerate back-door politics by other people," she said.
Another target of Ms. Blattermann's wrath is Ottavio F. Grande, a former public works official who attended a meeting with city officials, although he doesn't live or work in the area. Ms. Blattermann accused Mr. Grande of trying to use his knowledge of city government and his political connections to betray the community's wishes.
Mr. Grande said he was not involved in the matter and attended the meeting to deliver information on the ideal size of boccie courts.
"I was strictly a courier," he said.
Richard A. Ingrao, president of the community group, said the Cricchios tried to use city-owned land and resources to benefit their restaurant at the expense of boccie.
"There's always been a waiting line to get on the two courts, so there's no way we wanted to go down to one," Mr. Ingrao said.
He said he was particularly upset because work on the project was delayed by a drain pipe from Da Mimmo's that was improperly draining water onto the courts' expansion site.
Now the project is back on track and is expected to be finished in late fall or early winter.
"This is a great centerpiece for this community. That's why we didn't want to lose it," Mr. Ingrao said, adding that the city's work would repay the community for the removal of a boccie court several years ago to make way for the expansion of President Street.
Boccie is played with eight wooden boccie balls and a racquetball-size sphere called the pallino. Players from each side try to throw balls near the target or knock away their opponents' balls.
Some historians trace the sport back 3,500 to 4,000 years, to ancient Egypt and later Greece. The Romans came up with the name boccie (also spelled bocce) during the reigns of the Caesars.
The sport has enjoyed sporadic popularity among Italian immigrants in New York, Philadelphia and other large U.S. cities. usually is played on courts ranging from 78 to 120 feet long. The Little Italy courts will be 80 feet long.