Grandpa was right: Bocce is a damn fine game

Bocce. It’s not just something your Italian grandfather forces everyone to play at picnics. The sport dates to Roman times, dammit. And it’s endured for more than 2,000 years. So if you’re unfamiliar with what the game entails, you can find the answers here. But first, how about a little respect for the history of this thrown-ball game?

Still widely played in Italy, Italians have taken the sport with them everywhere they’ve migrated to, including Australia, North and South America. It’s also popular in Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Hell, Pope John Paul II played it. That counts for something, right?

Called “bocce” in Italy, the name is the plural of “boccia”, which is Italian for bowling. The general pattern of the spread of the game goes like this: Italian migrants arrive in a country, play the game, non-Italians think it looks fun, join in, and the game spreads further.

The wonderful world of Bocce Association traces the origins of the game even further back, writing poetically, “The beginnings of the game of bocce are lost in the darkness of time. Traces of the game can be found among the early Egyptians, and graphic representations of figures tossing a ball or polished stone have been recorded as early as 5200 B.C.”

The game of emperors…and pharaohs…and grandpas?

Interestingly, legend has it that Romans used coconuts brought back from Africa to play the game in addition to wood. Courts have been excavated in Rome’s seedier regions, leading anthropologists to theorize that, well, different varieties of balls have a tendency to flock together.

Bocce has had a sometimes-contentious relationship with the state. In the 16th century, King Carlos V prohibited the playing of bocce, as his subjects were more interested in bocce than military service. This was countered by medical opinion suggesting the game is beneficial to those suffering from rheumatism. Later in the 16th century, the Republic of Venice publicly condemned, threatening fines and imprisonment for those who tossed balls.

Interestingly, bocce was excluded from the first Olympics in Athens in 1896 because it lacked a central organizing party. This led to the established of a rash of bocce clubs, further enhancing the popularity of the sport. The Bocce World Championships were contested for the first time in 1947.

So, now that you know a bit about the history of grandpa’s favorite pastime, here’s how it’s traditionally played—which is a bit differently than the grass backyard variety most Americans are familiar with.

First of all, the cout is generally 90 feet long by eight to 13 feet wide. The surface is a crushed limestone or oyster shell top player. Backyard courts are often shorter. Bocce balls are generally made of metal or plastic. Players can play one-on-one or in teams.

The game itself consists of trying to roll one’s ball as close to the pallino as possible. And, well, if you don’t already know how to play, watch this video…

Got it? Bocce is like cornhole’s distinguished older family member. Instead of a beer and a beanbag, grab some wine and a bocce ball.