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Players who love bocce are on a roll in Portland

Italian-style bowling has a new venue in the North Park Blocks

The leisurely construction of two bocce lanes is finished. Tucked between Northwest Park and Eighth avenues and Flanders and Glisan streets, the spanking new lanes sit in the North Park Blocks between basketball courts.

Bocce (pronounced botch-ee) is a centuries-old, come-as-you-are sport. It originated in ancient times, but most people today associate it with Italians who play the game in streets and shady parks, usually not far from a glass of vino.

Italy isn't the only country with a version of lawn bowling, of course. The French have a similar game they call pŽtanque, and the English have 'bowls' and 'crown green bowling.' Bocce is big in Spain, too.

Now it's downtown Portland's turn to give bocce a whirl.

Bill Marinelli is the feisty 68-year-old Italian-American who got the ball rolling almost three years ago. Marinelli, a graduate of Holy Redeemer Elementary School and Central Catholic High School, plays in Portland and Vancouver, Wash., bocce leagues and remembers his grandparents playing it in Portland's Duniway Park when he was a boy.

'The whole area was Italian back then,' says the dapper Marinelli, dressed this day in a blue blazer with brass buttons, pins with the flags of Italy and the United States affixed to his lapel. Something of a charmer, Marinelli wears a handlebar mustache. His car has a bumper sticker that reads: 'The Luckiest People Marry Italians.'

Here's how bocce, a game that rewards finesse over sweat, is played: Two teams one red, one green are required. The object of the game is to roll the hard rubber balls, which are about the size of grapefruits, as close to the small white ball, or pallino, as possible. Players can 'kiss,' or nudge, the pallino closer or farther, depending on their opponent's position. Points are earned and added up at the end of each round.

The new Portland courts have unique qualities. At 60 feet by 12 feet, they are shorter than the standard 90-by-13-foot lanes. These lanes' sandy surfaces are made of ash, clay and finely ground oyster shells. A French drain a gravel-filled trench with sand on top surrounds the lanes both to keep rainwater from collecting and to direct runoff away from the sewer system.

Marinelli is a member of the Paisan Club and the Sons of Italy, both Italian-American social clubs. As such, he's earned himself the nickname 'Mr. Network.' He belongs to the Italian American Chamber of Commerce, a group that is helping establish sister-city status between Portland and Bologna, Italy.

When Marinelli first decided that the neighborhood could use a couple of bocce courts, he enlisted fellow bocce player and Pearl District neighbor Dianna Hanken-Hu as his liaison. They teamed up with Fredrick Zal, a young architect who became the project's pro-bono landscape designer.

'It all started with Bill's scribble on a napkin,' Zal says, holding up a thick binder that charts the project's journey from casual doodle to officially sanctioned project.

There were a few hurdles, Zal explains. Permanent additions to Portland's public parks must be built to last 40 years, he learned. A structure has to be built to withstand anything from earthquakes to collisions with park maintenance trucks. The city also required the French drain to ensure proper drainage of rainwater.

In other words, Marinelli says, 'these courts will last forever.'

The three organizers figured it would cost about $2,000 to $3,000 to pull this off. The final price tag ballooned to $18,000.

Many people pitched in to help raise the money. Gino Schettini of nearby Piazza Italia restaurant held a fund-raiser. Pearl neighbor Dick Ponzi of Ponzi Vineyards donated the wine. Portland Parks & Recreation eventually awarded the team a grant of $5,000 to finish the project.

The names of other friends and supporters of the bocce courts can be found in small bronze plates along the courts' perimeter.

Over a glass of Escudo Rojo at a neighborhood wine bar, Marinelli says, 'There were a few times I almost told the city where to sit.' His determined personality helped him get here, though: 'I'm a bulldog. I don't let go very easy.'

When a pretty woman enters the cafe, he looks up, taps his fingers, and says with a shrug and twinkle in his eye, 'And I've got young blood.'

A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the bocce courts is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 11, in the North Park Blocks.

Contact Michaela Bancud at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..