North Chicago suburb celebrates bocce, miei amici

Bocce. By Gene Han via Flickr. CC license.

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By Margaret Tazioli

HIGHWOOD, Illinois —

Few pine for this Chicago suburb’s earliest days, when it was a late 19th-Century enclave of mischief and brawlers, holder of the ignominious title of more whisky dens per square mile than anywhere in the world.

But who can blame a group of Italian-Americans, gathered on a Friday evening on Aug. 18 in the suburb north of Chicago, who want to remember another era starting in the 1920s when more of their families called the place home and some toted around bags of mysterious, heavy bocce balls. The game dates to the Egyptians of 5000 B.C., throwing small, polished rocks at other ones.

No doubt, the food and wine have gotten considerably better.

While not quite as ancient, the scene at Highwood Bocce Club would have been similar to those that played out 50 years ago in the same space: a small group speaking Italian and cheering each other on in a competitive game of bocce. This was a bit of a special occasion, too. The local league’s semi-final matches, pitting Frank DeLucca vs Dominic Ugolini and Todd Mikell vs. Maurizio Perrelli. There’s plenty of experience among them and, aside from the good camaraderie and food, the crowd was eager to know whom would prevail.

Paolo Giannetti is one of the more outspoken fans, and, normally one of the club’s best players, he’s rooting for his pal DeLucca, the smooth-throwing long timer. “That guy is on my team, I think he is going to win the whole thing because I know how he plays,” Giannetti said enthusiastically.

The club is a sturdy building at the end of Bank Lane that was built in 1969 by those who wanted a place to play: the stone masons, carpenters, electricians, and roofers largely responsible for building many of the beautiful mansions in the area.

The room is long, and painted in red, white, and green; four sand courts run the length of the room, each 90 feet long and about 10 feet wide. Flags from the countries that participated when Highwood hosted the World Cup Bocce Tournament in 1996 decorate the ceiling.

On this particular Friday, they come for the game but there’s also food, drinks, cards, and conversation. Membership for $125 per year isn’t much if you consider the chance to both reminisce and live in the present. And the cost of beverages can’t be beat: one dollar for a glass of wine, two for a beer.

The rules of the game are simple: the winner of a coin flip throws the small metallic pallino, and then rolls the first bigger bocce ball. The goal is to get your bocce balls closer to the pallino than your opponent’s balls. Each team rolls until their ball is closest to the pallino or they are out of balls. Score one point per ball that is closer and play to 12.

Most of the Italians in the club are tradesmen. Dominic Ugolini specializes in heating, air, and plumbing, and Maurizio Perrelli fixes garage doors.

The chattering among the 30 or so gathered didn’t stop until, on DeLucca and Ugolini’s court, the score was tight and DeLucca only needed a few more points to win the game.

The crowd grew quiet and watched as Ugolini wound up and hurled his ball towards the pallino — nearly 60 feet away.

“He gets three points!” Giannetti said, clapping heartily. “That was a lucky shot. He was shooting the ball, the ball hit the pallino, the pallino came down here. Two balls down here makes three points.” Giannetti declared, “It’s a lucky shot.”

Yet despite Ugolini’s luck, he couldn’t beat DeLucca. On Mikell and Perrelli’s court, Mikell ended up winning their drawn-out duel.

A week later, a crowd paid $15 to watch Mikell face off against DeLucca in the championship game — and they got their choice of Italian sausage and beef, pasta and salad. This time, it was the elder DeLucca, as his friend predicted, engraving his name on the championship plaque.

Earlier this summer, the club played host to the national bocce games and 1,000 people showed up, according to the Chicago Tribune. It’s a game that’s certainly about more than a trophy. As Mario Galletti, the 80-plus former club champion said then: “Bocce, that is my exercise, it’s the best in the world. It’s keeping me nice and slim.”

Margaret Tazioli is a Chicago-based journalist. Contact her on Twitter @MargaretTazioli.

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