Leisure Italian Style

Ah, bocce. That leisurely pursuit of elderly Italian gentlemen whiling away warm afternoons as they sip red wine, smoke cigars and discuss politics.

A quaint image, no doubt, but no longer completely accurate. Wine and talk of politics still occur, but today’s bocce players are just as likely to be women—of all ages. Across the country bocce has seen a resurgence in recent years, attracting many players who don’t fit the “old country” mold.

Marin is no exception. A thriving bocce scene centers around the eight bocce courts at Albert Park in San Rafael, drawing as many as 1,000 players a week.

“The most important thing about it is that our lives are so fast-paced and hectic and this is a slow game,” says Donna Robbins of Corte Madera. Known as “Bella” on the Albert Park courts, Robbins got hooked on the game about a year ago and now plays in a weekly league.

The premise of the game is simple: roll a four-inch bocce ball as close as possible to the smaller target ball—the pallino. The bocce ball closest to the pallino scores a point; 12 points constitute a game. Yet this simple game requires a surprising amount of
skill. Depending on how good players are, a game can be over in 15 minutes—or 90 minutes.

“People think, ‘Oh, this looks easy,’” says Diana Pellegrini, executive administrator of the Marin Bocce Federation, which runs the bocce courts and keeps a staff member on hand to explain the game’s intricacies and etiquette to newcomers. “It’s not hard to learn, but it does require finesse, strategy and hand-eye coordination.”

Indeed, rolling a bocce ball to a precise point on the court is an art. Roll too lightly and the bocce will be too far from the pallino. Roll too vigorously and the bocce will bounce off the back edge of the court, taking it out of play. Don’t forget to aim and remember to knock your opponents’ bocce balls out of the way. That’s a lot to keep in mind.

Bocce’s history is extensive. Its geographic beginnings are up for debate, but historians generally agree the game originated as early as 5200 B.C. Bocce eventually spread throughout Europe, and Italians are credited with popularizing the game as we know it today.

Bocce enthusiasts say this ancient pastime appeals to modern sensibilities because of its mental stimulation, ease on the body and social atmosphere.

Vince Passanisi of San Rafael began playing bocce nine years ago at his brother’s urging. He was addicted from the first roll of the ball, drawn to the challenge of putting the bocce and the pallino side by side. Now, he plays five or six days a week, during open play and in leagues. “I think people are craving community, and I think this is beginning to kind of fill that void,” says Pellegrini.

From April through November, the Albert Park courts host league play three mornings and five nights a week. The atmosphere can range from still concentration to boisterous banter. Some teams have uniforms; others just wear what feels lucky that day. Friendships form among teammates and across team lines.

The San Rafael courts are also open to the occasional player. During open play hours, $3 per person pays for three hours of court time, instruction and equipment. For those with bad backs, the bocce federation even provides plungers attached to wooden dowels so you can pick up the balls without bending.

Fragrant rosebushes surround the area, picnic tables are spread about and covered arbors provide shade. Players are welcome to bring food, wine and beer. Just as they have for generations of bocce players, lively discussion and friendly competition flow.

A perfect way to wile away a spring afternoon in Marin.

 Ready to Roll!

The Marin Bocce Federation's  bocce courts are at 550 B Street in Albert Park, San Rafael.  Food, beer and wine are allowed  (no hard alcohol.)

Hours:  Beginning in April, open play 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Cost:  $3 per person for three hours on a drop-in basis.  Reservations are $17 per hour for a court
Leagues:  Contact the Marin Bocce Federation, 415.485.5583.