Rolling a 'bella boccia' Festival: Competitors hone their skills with hopes of becoming boccie champions at the Little Italy tournament.

August 24, 1996|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

The self-proclaimed "Champ" shuffles his feet slowly and moves to the far end of the court, where he picks up a green boccia ball. Biding his time and trying the patience of his opponents, he carefully studies the haphazard pattern of several green and red boccie scattered before him.

"Come on, Luigi, shoot the ball, we ain't got all night," scoffs Joe Scalia, a member of the opposing team, as he adjusts his bifocals.

It's training season for Little Italy's second St. Gabriel's Open Bocce Tournament, and the tension mounts as time lags, but Luigi Boeri -- a hulking figure with gray hair -- will not be hurried.

His two-man team, the greens, is in a precarious position. They need just one more point to win the game, which is the Italian version of lawn bowling. But their opponents' red boccie are closest to the pallina -- the small red ball that is rolled onto the court at the beginning of the game and is the target of the larger balls. If Boeri fails to roll closer to the pallina than his opponents did, the red team will earn two points and the score will be tied.

With a furrow of his brow and a swing of his arm, Boeri throws the green boccia. It rolls down the center of the court, stopping just centimeters from the pallina.

"Bella boccia -- good ball," shouts a spectator from the sidelines as the referee proclaims Boeri and his teammate, Mike Ninni, the winners.

"See, I am the best," Boeri says with a wink, drawing a sigh from Scalia.

"Just wait until the tournament, when the pressure is really on, then we'll see," Scalia says, brushing past Boeri with a wave of his hand.

The four men -- Boeri, Ninni, Scalia and Ermanno D'Amico, Scalia's teammate for this evening's practice -- are honing their skills on the community boccie court off Stiles Street for the tournament, scheduled for noon tomorrow, weather permitting.

Scalia believes his "dream team" -- himself, Boeri, Ninni and a fourth Little Italy resident, Tony Sansone -- has what it takes to capture the $1,000 first prize.

The tournament, which is open to teams of four players age 16 or older, is part of the annual St. Gabriel's Festival that begins at noon today.

The two-day Italian festival is held in honor of Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows (Francis Possenti, 1838-1862), the saint who died of consumption in the Abruzzi region of Italy -- from which many residents of Little Italy trace their heritage.

A Mass will be celebrated at 9: 30 tomorrow morning in honor of the saint at St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church on Exeter Street, where Little Italy residents have been baptized and married for ,, more than 100 years.

"After the Mass, residents will carry a statue of St. Gabriel, on a platform decorated with ribbons, around the neighborhood," said the Rev. Oreste Pandola, pastor of St. Leo's.

"The festival gives us a chance to come together as a community and show our ethnic pride," said Lucy Pompa, who lives in the neighborhood and will help prepare a ravioli and spaghetti dinner for festivalgoers today in St. Leo's air-conditioned school hall on Stiles Street.

"A lot of the kids return to Little Italy for the festival," added Ida Esposito, who lives on Exeter Street. "They come back to socialize with old friends and catch up on neighborhood gossip."

Each year, more than 3,000 people -- visitors as well as former residents -- flock to Little Italy for the festival to play bingo and feast on fried dough, porchetta, cannoli and calzones. Proceeds from this year's event, which is being held from noon to 8 p.m. today and tomorrow, will be donated to St. Leo's church and other community groups, according to Bob Taylor, organizer of the festivities.

LTC Once predominantly Jewish, the historic enclave known as "da neighborhood" to anyone who grew up in Little Italy, became an Italian community during the mid-1800s. Italian immigrants began buying homes from Jews, who had prospered and moved to less crowded areas of the city -- including Lombard Street, Park Heights and Eutaw Place.

The transition was completed after St. Leo's church was built in 1881, attracting an increasing number of Italians. The parish has been the center of Little Italy life since its foundation.

Today, many of the children of the Italian immigrants are grown and gone -- they've moved to the counties and other areas in the city to raise their families. But despite the gradual population decline, Little Italy continues to thrive.

"It's a very close-knit community," said Gia Blattermann, who moved to the neighborhood with her parents in 1953. "My mother-in-law lives next door to me, and my son lives nearby, too. We all look out for one another."

Best known for its concentration of Italian restaurants, Little Italy can be a warm and friendly place. Passers-by who muster the courage to chat with residents often make fast friends. Some even find themselves shooting a boccia.

"We've had a lot of people come out and watch us play," said Blattermann, who has formed Team Gia, Little Italy's only all-women boccie team. "One couple from [Baltimore County] even bought their children a boccie set. They come and play quite often."

"I've heard about boccie, and read about it, but I have never seen the game played," said Michelle Baer of West Virginia, who stopped by the boccie courts Wednesday "because curiosity got the best of me."

She and her children had just finished dining at Da Mimmo, a restaurant known for its pasta creations.

"Fine food and fun, that's what the festival is all about," said festival organizer Taylor. "It combines the best of all things Italian."

Pub Date: 8/24/96

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