In the North End’s Langone Park, the bocce courts are riddled with gashes and tiny potholes, promising a struggle for any ball trying to navigate the choppy terrain.
To the novice, this might appear daunting, but to Natale DeMarco it’s an advantage. He knows the faces of the courts so well that with every toss, the ball seems to land precisely where he desires.
“I know all the corners, all the tricks of the court,’’ DeMarco, 62, said in a thick accent from his native Italy as his opponent bunched his fingers together in the classic Italian gesture of frustration.
“He’s just mad he cannot play like me,’’ DeMarco said.
DeMarco and his opponent, longtime friend Salvatore Cucciniello, 73, used to play bocce behind churches in Italy — DeMarco in Rome, Cucciniello in the southern town of Montefalcione —when they were boys.
These days, as the blazing summer sun glimmers off the waters of Boston Harbor, the two are regulars at this North End park, taking to the bocce court at least three times a week. They are joined by locals and tourists alike, who come not only to participate in this ancient Roman sport but to spend time with friends and family in the city’s warm summer air.
Almost every afternoon, extending into the evening, the waterfront park looks like a scene out of the old country as it plays host to modified Italian siestas. Rather than napping, locals unwind by gathering in this more-than-century-old park to play cards, drink wine, and, of course, partake in what DeMarco calls a game of relaxation.
Bocce is also a game of accuracy. Players roll a 2-pound ceramic ball down the 75-foot-long court aiming for a smaller ball called a pallino. They can also aim for existing shots, knocking them closer or farther away, as well as moving the pallino.
“This is my enjoyment,’’ DeMarco said. “You’re yelling and screaming, but it’s relaxing.’’
DeMarco typically saves his yelling and screaming for when he wins. After defeating Cucciniello 12-4, he pumped his fist in the air before high-fiving Gianna Federico, 12, of Lowell, whose grandfather was nearby playing scopa, an Italian card game.
Then, the proud victor belted out his trademark catchphrase: “I have a dream!’’
The girl rolled her eyes. “Who is this guy, Martin Luther King over here?’’ she quipped.
While bocce has long been considered a leisurely hobby for old men, learning the game is somewhat of a cultural rite of passage for Italian children. Federico maintains that she still has a ways to go until she can match up with DeMarco.
“You could probably kick my butt all the way to Charlestown,’’ she said.
DeMarco doesn’t care about winning; he just wants to keep the tradition alive.
Giesla D’Annunzio, 38, of Charlton, couldn’t help but notice the bocce courts as she strolled by with three foreign exchange students she was hosting. She and her family play every Sunday following dinner at her in-laws’ house, where they have a court in the backyard.
“I married into an Italian family, and they love their bocce,’’ she said.
But local Italians are not proprietary about the game.
Wearing a white T-shirt with a picture of the president that read, “Barack Obocce,’’ Jim Luisi, 49, an Italian-American, said bocce is a game for everybody.
Doesn’t matter who you are,’’ he said.
Luisi was in the midst of refereeing a bocce tournament to help benefit local community health centers. On the elevated stone steps above the courts, Gina Casoni, 45, a participant, was rattling Commercial Street’s soundscape with her resounding cheers. “There we go! That’s a good one!’’ she hollered as a teammate tossed the pallino.
When her turn arrived, she gently rolled the ball, kneeling so close to the court’s surface that her bell-bottom jeans grazed the chalky ground. The shot missed.
“Awful, just awful,’’ Casoni said as she returned to her seat, retiring to a paper Dixie cup of chilled chardonnay.
Wine is crucial to the game, according to DeMarco, perhaps even more so than familiarity with the court. He calls it “bocce gasoline.’’
“Salute!’’ DeMarco cheered as he raised his cup to Casoni’s.
Maybe it’s just the wine talking, but DeMarco couldn’t be happier.
“This is the perfect way to spend the summer,’’ he said.
Alex Katz can be reached at email@example.com.
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