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!00 Things Every Western New Yorker Should Do At Least Once: Play Bocce

You say bocce “BOH-chay.” “BOTT-chee” – “baci” in Italian – means kisses. ¶ So explained Monsignor Fred Voorhes of St. Anthony of Padua Church, Buffalo’s bastion of Italian culture. But here in Western New York, bocce is “BOTT-chee.” As in Bocce Club Pizza. Good luck changing it now. ¶ However you pronounce it, bocce is our birthright. ¶ The game came here thanks to Western New York’s many Italian immigrants. Almost all cultures, though, can lay claim to it. Ancient Egyptians played bocce. The game swept the Roman Empire in the reign of Caesar Augustus. Jesus could have played bocce, and he probably did. A big reason bocce rolls on is that it can be played by all – men and women, old and young, God and man. ¶ You can set up a bocce game anywhere – on sand, grass or gravel. Finding an actual court takes strategy. ¶ Bocce Club Pizza no longer boasts bocce courts, as it did in the 1940s. Delaware Park’s bocce courts are now lawn bowling. There is a hallowed bocce club in East Lovejoy, called the Big Timers’ Club. But it’s private. ¶ Clearly, a bocce renaissance is overdue. Luckily, we found several options.

Ilio diPaolo’s in Blasdell, has just opened its court for the summer. DiPaolo, the late wrestler, loved bocce so much he had his own court at home. The restaurant’s court, humorously sandwiched between parking lots, adjoins a charming patio with a painting of his hometown.

What fun, to relax with an antipasto and a glass of house wine, and acquaint yourself with the game. It was like a quieter version of a previous 100 Things stop, bowling at Voelker’s.

Bocce is beautifully simple.

Someone sends a small white ball – called a pallino, Italian for bullet – rolling into the middle of the court. Then you roll a larger ball toward it, trying to get as close as possible. If your opponent has a ball closer to the pallino than you do, you can try to knock the rival ball farther away. You can also bump the pallino itself, sending it rolling.

As you work to improve your technique, it helps to make a pilgrimage to Hyde Park in Niagara Falls.

The park, long an anchor of Niagara Falls’ Little Italy, is gorgeous. Drive in the stately Pine Avenue entrance and a bank of bocce courts appears on your left, by the lake. Leagues play there at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

So legendary is the Hyde Park Bocce League that it is whispered that in order to join, you have to wait for someone to die. Whether or not that’s true, everyone playing on a recent Thursday – women’s league night – seemed to feel blessed.

Alicia Livesay, of Niagara Falls, has been playing bocce for only about 20 years, making her a relative newcomer. When she first tried to join, she confessed, the ladies told her that in her 40s, she was too young.

“They have stories to tell, and they’re beautiful,” she said. “These are the most intelligent women.”

They’re fit, too. Alberta Frey, 80, nimbly rolled the ball just so, scoring a point for her team, the Molson Canadiens.

“Put that on camera, sweetheart,” she told The News’ photographer.

When it’s not clear whose ball is closest to the pallino, measuring tapes settle the question. League president Marie Esposito, on the Guido’s Upholstery team, watched carefully over the action.

Mary Vitello said that as a girl growing up in Niagara Falls, she would look out her window and watch the Italian men, her uncle among them, playing bocce in the alley below.

“They would measure with their belts,” she recalled.

When the league was packing up and the sun had set over the lake, I got to pick up a Hyde Park bocce ball. It was weathered, cool and heavy as if made out of stone.

Gamely, I sent it rolling toward the pallino. It veered off. But that didn’t matter. The women joked that the men are more competitive. Here, it was all in fun.

As one player, Mary Paladino, laughed: “We hug and kiss each other when the game’s over.”

After bocce, baci. Now there’s a sweet tradition.

Have a ball.

email: mkunz@buffnews.com