At Warren's 27th annual Italian-American Heritage Festival, bocce is more than just a game. The bocce tournament comprises approximately a third of the events on the festival's program and totals more than 34 hours.
"Warren has one of the biggest and best bocce tournaments in the whole area," said Stephen Ficeti, organizer of the bocce tournament for the festival. "You probably have an extra 400 people that come to the festival strictly for bocce."
The festival featured a four-day, double-elimination tournament with 24 teams of at least five people each, all from the Warren area.
Salvatore Capogreco, of Girard, playing for the Salvatore’s Grill of Howland team, center, tosses the bocce ball as John Cheeks of Mineral Ridge, left, and Ralph Foder of Champion, both Warren Moose team members, watch the toss during bocce action on the first day of the Italian-American Heritage Festival this past week.
"I try to keep it local. There are lots of teams from extended areas who are very tournament-oriented. They'll be at a different tournament every week, and their sole purpose is just to win money," Ficeti said.
"Our tournament is based around the festival. That's the point. To bring people down to the festival and be part of the festival, so I try to keep it more local and not let some of the big ringers in."
Teams come from all over the area, including groups from Youngstown and several Italian-American club chapters, all competing for first place and a prize of $1,000.
What you need:
Eight large balls (bocce balls)
One smaller ball (pallino)
A large, open, flat space. Regulation bocce courts are 76 feet long and 10 feet wide
Two teams of two to four people
How to play
Begin by dividing the bocce balls up evenly between the players on each team.
Randomly select someone from the first team to toss the pallino toward the back of the open space.
After the pallino settles, the same person tosses his or her ball, aiming so that it settles as close to the pallino as possible without touching it.
Next, each member of the second team tosses his or her ball in turn, trying to place a ball closer to the pallino than the first team's.
Once the second team succeeds in placing a ball closest to the pallino, it's the first team's turn again. Once the first team is closest, the turn goes back to the second team. This continues until there are no more balls.
After all bocce balls have been tossed, one point is given to the team whose ball is closest to the pallino. One point is then given to that same team for every bocce ball that is closer to the pallino than the opposing team's closest bocce ball. If both teams placed a ball at equal distance from the pallino, no point is awarded.
This concludes one frame. The game is comprised of as many frames as it takes for one team to reach 13 points.
Knocking the other team's balls away from the pallino is legal and so is hitting the pallino itself, so teams can get creative while attempting to earn points.
There's no doubt that bocce has gained more notoriety here than in most American towns.
"It's more popular in more Italian-populated communities," Ficeti said. "I don't know if you went to Wyoming, if it would be as popular, but a lot of Italians settled around here, and it just seems like one of the things that stuck."
Although bocce may be Italian in heritage, the United States Bocce Federation claims that it originated in Egypt and gained popularity in Greece before spreading through the Roman Empire around 800 B.C. In 1576, so many people were absorbed in bocce that the game was condemned in the Republic of Venice because its rampant popularity posed a threat to national security.
For Ficeti and other modern-day competitors, bocce is a way of life. Ficeti has played bocce for almost 20 years - a remarkable record given that he's only 26 years old - and he's volunteered to organize the festival for the last four years out of love for the game.
"It costs $100 per team to register and there are 24 teams," Ficeti said. "I just take all that money and pay it back to the winners. The festival doesn't make a dime. I don't make a dime."
Money isn't the motivating factor for most people. For Betty Lemasters, a member of the Howland SCOPE senior citizen center, it's about the people,
"I like the camaraderie, and I really enjoy it," she said, and she's not the only one. Lemasters is one of more than 120 SCOPE members who get together at least twice each week in the summer to play bocce in their senior league; the oldest member of the group is 91 years old.
"The idea of the league is to be social, and it can get competitive," said Joe Bedich, co-manager of the Howland SCOPE Center. "At the end [of our season] there's a big dinner and the winner mostly gets bragging rights."
The SCOPE senior league didn't compete at the festival because, for them, bocce is just about staying active and spending time with friends.
"A lot of people think it's strictly an older person's game, and I'm sure that at one point in time it was, but the more competitive things got and the more courts that started popping up, and the more tournaments they started holding, the more younger people started getting into it," Ficeti said.
At the festival, players of all ages came out to have a good time and, hopefully, win. The Bottiglieri Lawn Care team made it into the finals with players appearing to range in age from late 20s to late 70s. ITAM No. 30 - Team Butto won this year's bocce tournament and first prize by one point in the final game.
For most players, one of the best parts about bocce is the sense of community that springs from being involved with people who share the love of the game.
"We all get along, most of us are all friends, most of us play at the same places," Ficeti said.
For him, bocce is as much about celebrating and practicing an important part of Italian culture as it is about community, which is what the Warren Italian-American Heritage Festival is all about.