High Rollers

There is something magical about bocce in the summer. A knot of men gathered for a lazy afternoon, one player swinging his arms before launching a white “pallino” across the long court. The sound of one hard ball striking another. Then the silence of a second or more before the reaction reveals itself—either an anguished clap of the hands for “damn, almost had it” or a joyous eruption. Evidence that there is life in this most cordial sport.

Long known to Italian grandchildren as a placid way to spend an afternoon, the Old World game has a less-than-serious reputation. But there is more to it than friendly rivalry. Peter Rabito is on a mission to change the public perception of bocce. For Rabito and a cadre of local enthusiasts, the game is a challenging and addictive pastime that combines strategy and coordination. “I call it a combination of chess and golf,” Rabito said. “You have to use strategy to outwit your opponent and learn the lay of the field like in golf.”

That field is an outdoor court where friendly competition is the name of the game. But playing on an official court morphs a leisurely backyard activity into a highly competitive organized sport, explained Rabito, the president of Huntington’s American Bocce Club. “People who come for the first time always say they never knew bocce could be played like this.” For aficionados, court time means serious play with careful scorekeeping and referees to judge close calls.

Rabito is also vice president of the United States Bocce Federation, the governing body for tournament play. Recently, the sport has been attracting a younger generation—the 50 member American Bocce Club has players from 18 to 70 years old—and Rabito, in his 40s, is breathing new life into the game. “I was introduced to bocce by my Italian grandparents as a child,” he said. “I played mostly at family picnics or on the grass in parks. Unfortunately, as I got older and wanted to continue playing in local parks [in Queens] the old-timers tended to lord over the courts and really didn’t welcome us.” Rabito and his friends would sneak onto the courts to play when they got a chance. After moving to Huntington he formed American Bocce Club, for people who wanted a friendly but serious way to play. Beginners are welcome and the club divides their weeknight meetings by ability level.

The core group plays all year, keeping their skills fresh during the winter by playing indoors at the nearest facility in Mt. Vernon. Come springtime they head to the outdoor courts in Huntington’s Mill Dam Park where they play weekly, in addition to traveling to tournaments throughout the five boroughs. The social aspect is a big draw for most players, but mastering the nuances, like strategy and playing to opponents’ weaknesses, keeps it interesting for veterans.

Lately the game has been getting a bit of hipster cachet too; Rabito noted bars in Brooklyn are installing courts. And East End vineyards have hosted bocce as a fun summer diversion as well. The simplicity of the game appeals to newcomers, as does the relative ease of entry. Players don’t need to be particularly strong or fast, but hand-eye coordination is a must.

For the long-timers like Rabito, this isn’t just a passing fad. “There’s a saying in the bocce community: Bocce, it takes a few minutes to learn but a lifetime to master.”

America Bocce Club
is for competitive teams and informal individual play all summer. No experience necessary.
When: Weds @ 7:30pm starting May 14
Where: Mill Dam Park, Huntington
Registration: Open, but $55 for membership

Jacqueline Sweet

Jacqueline Sweet

Jacqueline Sweet is a freelance journalist and writer who covers local news and writes features for local and regional publications. She has published work in national magazines like Salute magazine, Family (military) magazine, Triathlete magazine, regional publications like Long Island Pulse and Long Island Parenting, and reported local news for online outlets like LongIslandWins.com and Patch.com. She has been covering health, wellness, fitness beauty, spa and travel for Long Island Pulse for several years.