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Bravo for bocce

Paesano Club keeps traditions alive for local Italian-Americans
by: SARAH TOOR, Even among friends, arguments can happen – especially over whose ball is closer to the pallino.

Bocce, a game long associated with Italians, has caught on in Portland. Local leagues are more popular than ever, with interest so high that in 2003 lanes were installed in the North Park Blocks.

But Paesano Cedarville Park, tucked in the no man's land where Southeast Powell Boulevard runs into Gresham, isn't a place where fads flourish.

To the many Italian-Americans who gathered for a Sunday afternoon game at Cedarville Park, bocce isn't a funky new hobby but a link to their heritage and a family tradition tracing back to their childhoods.

Oh, and it serves another purpose, too.

'It's a good reason to get together, drink wine and smoke cigars,' says Don Filippi, a Beaverton insurance agent who is one of the participants.

Rich Calcagno, a 71-year-old St. Johns resident, doesn't play bocce much anymore. But he has come to Cedarville Park to watch the others play. The competitors include many members of a group called the Paesano Club, and men he's known for decades.

Calcagno's late father brought his love for the game with him when he immigrated to the United States as a 16-year-old in 1910. Jim Calcagno was one of Portland's most well-known players. He helped build the lanes at the park in the 1970s.

Game crossed the ocean

A game similar to lawn bowling, bocce is played with four large heavy balls and a smaller ball called a pallino. The pallino is tossed onto the court first, and the object is to bring the large balls to rest nearer to the pallino than your opponent's.

At the end of a round, the competitor whose best throw is closest to the pallino receives one point for every ball closer than the nearest opponent ball.

There are variations to the rules that can make bocce quite complicated - and it's often played in teams - but in its essence it's a simple game.

The immigrants brought bocce with them from Italy, where its simplicity made it popular with the working classes.

'In Italy, when they were growing up, everybody played bocce,' Rich Calcagno says. 'That's the ease of the game. You could get people together and just play in the grass, because everybody had a ball of some sort.'

The match at Cedarville is a private tournament. It has the feel of a picnic, with sandwiches, salads and potato chips set out on a picnic table alongside bottles of Italian wine.

The atmosphere is boisterous. It's a typical Italian social gathering in that several conversations are occurring simultaneously on the courts - and they are at a higher than typical volume.

As the matches get competitive and the conversations get heated, many of the players switch from speaking English to speaking Italian.

Matches were for the men

The gatherings at the Paesano Club have their origins in the picnics that families in the close-knit Italian-American community used to organize in the first half of the century.

Organized by the local Gardeners and Ranchers Association, a group of Italian truck farmers that still exists, the events drew families from all over the Portland area to various parks.

Fred Siri, 83, has been playing bocce since his childhood, when one of the few bocce courts in the city was at a place called Harmony Point off Southeast 82nd Avenue and King Road.

'We were living over on (Southeast) Webster Road, not far from Clackamas Avenue,' Siri remembers, 'and we lived around a lot of other farmers - there was Fijini, Garbarino, DeMartini. And every Sunday about noon, after we had our vegetables picked, we'd all meet for bocce.'

The matches had another purpose. They were used to fund the picnics.

'The losing teams would put 25 cents in a coffee can, and once they got $20 or something they'd go out and buy steaks,' Calcagno says. 'In those days, $20 would buy a lot of meat. They'd invite the families, and the ladies would come out and bring food.'

The women would have tea and coffee, and talk. In those days, only men played bocce.

'It's not that they weren't allowed,' Calcagno says, then pauses. 'Well, if you come down to it, they weren't allowed. It was a man's game.'

The Paesano Club began in 1955 as a vehicle for continuing the annual Gardeners and Ranchers Association picnics. For years, the meetings were in one member's basement.

'And then we decided well, what do we call it?' Calcagno remembers. 'Well, in Italy everyone is a paesan (which means peasant). So we all said, well, why not call it the Paesano Club?'

Looking for a home in the 1970s, the club bought Cedarville Park, which was deteriorating and in danger of being redeveloped as housing.

The club moved into a banquet hall on the site and used it to put on events. Now members are renovating existing courts, adding new ones and plan to put up lights and a roof.

Play till you're morte

As Calcagno finishes a story about an old Italian man who was almost blind but nearly unbeatable at bocce, a loud argument breaks out on one of the courts between Filippi and his opponent, Quinto Forlini.

They are arguing about whose ball is closer to the pallino. The details are hard to sort out. Most of what they are saying are curse words - all in Italian.

'Here they go,' Calcagno says. 'This is what bocce is really about - the arguments.'

Calcagno has watched bocce catch on with a wider audience. That simple game, beloved by Italian peasants because it was cheap and convenient, also makes it great for socializing. Variations can be played by anyone of nearly any age.

'The game, as old as it is, is probably more popular than it's ever been,' Calcagno says. 'The city of Portland built those two alleys downtown, and that's where they have the city league. The league is so big now they actually had their championship out here.'

He's also seen the demographics change over time.

Quite a few women now play, 'and many of them are quite good,' he says.

The matches go for several hours, until players slowly begin to peel away.

After losing a match and an argument or two, Filippi puts out his cigar.

'I gotta go home and lick my wounds,' he tells another player. 'I'm morte now. Ciao bella.'

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You can play bocce, too

You, too, can try your hand at bocce.

Sign-ups have begun for a summer bocce league at Paesano Cedarville Park. Play begins June 2 and will run through the middle of August.

Entry fees are $150 for each team. Teams may have an unlimited number of players on their rosters, but only four people can play each week.

The summer league isn't as boisterous as the private tournaments, organizer Larry Cereghino says.

'The Monday night league is a fun league,' he says. 'It's to play bocce, learn the game and have a good time.'

Cedarville also will be the site of open Sunday tournaments on July 13, Aug. 10 and Aug. 17, and Cereghino is planning kids' camps on two Sundays in June and two Sundays in July.

Call Cereghino, 503-201-4585, for information on the events.

- Joel Fowlks