This corner of Little Italy has a soft Mediterranean feel with the murmur of Italian drifting over the click of boccie balls in the fading twilight. We could be in a village square anywhere from Sicily to Tirolo. But we're on the boccie courts on Stiles Street, just half a block from St. Leo's church.
Rose Castagnoli Apicella, a prima donna di boccie in a pink-striped T-shirt, pink shorts and very sensible shoes, plants her feet solidly on the boccie court, squats slightly, then steps forward to release her ball as softly as if she were rolling an egg. The red ball moves at a slow stately pace to turn slightly at the end and snuggle up against the pallino, the small metal target ball.
Rose, 75, is a mainstay of Team Gia, which is "the women's team" in a sport where men still shudder with annoyance when women win. Rose remembers when she was a girl, men whispered "women don't play boccie." As it turns out, she's pretty good.
She was born in a house about two blocks from these courts. She worked at the Raleigh men's clothes factory like a lot of the other women of her generation from here. She ran a dry-cleaning shop with her late husband, Louis, on the corner across from St. Leo's. She became a waitress at Chiapparelli's. She cooked for a while when her son had a place called Antney's on Eastern Avenue. She still lives a couple of blocks away on Fawn Street. And she loves boccie.
"I think I inherited it," she says. "My father was a champ."
Her father, Attilio Castagnoli, - which means chestnut, Rose says - was a carpenter born in Genoa.
Her mother, Margaret Frizzera, was born in Tirolo, the Tyrol, when it was part of Austria.
Rose is a foursquare, straightforward woman who tells her tales with kind of brash frankness. She wears her silver-gray hair short and tightly curled. She doesn't wear any makeup. Her face is unlined and her complexion has a glow lots of teenagers would die for.
She's bowling for Team Gia in the Rocco's Capriccio Boccie Tournament.
The Capriccio tournament is prep for the big St. Anthony's Festival, which will bring 16 top teams to the Little Italy courts on Sunday. The festival this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Great Baltimore Fire when the people of Little Italy prayed to St. Anthony for protection against the advancing flames. The fire stopped short and the neighborhood has expressed its gratitude every year on the Saint's feast day.
In the Capriccio tourney Team Gia is down 10-4 when Rose rolls her second ball. Seeing her slowly turn it is oddly suspenseful, like watching a long, slow Tiger Woods putt. Rose's ball stops near enough to the pallino for another point. Team Gia is on its way to winning.
Rose and Giovanna Aquia Blatterman - Gia- formed the team when the Little Italy boccie courts opened in 1994.
"It was me and her and whoever we could pick up," Gia says. "Because nobody wanted to play with us."
Women were really only grudgingly accepted as boccie players in Little Italy when the Stiles Street courts opened.
"We had two tournaments in the very first year, St. Anthony's and St. Gabriel," Gia says. "And we won. We won the St. Anthony's - three or four times. And they were flipping out."
Rose remembers the boccie courts that used to be near the Sewage Pumping Station at Eastern Avenue and President Street, which is now the Public Works Museum.
"I never saw a woman play down the pumping station," Rose says. "They never did, hon. I used to walk my dog down there and watch them play. All men. I wanted to play down there, but I knew how they felt."
Boccie is a deceptively simple game. Teams of four people face off on a court roughly 10-by-60 feet, two people from each team at opposite ends of the court. Each player rolls two balls, about softball size, trying to get close to the pallino, or to knock the other team's ball away. The player who targets the pallino is a pointer; the player who blasts the other teams away with a spada, a fastball (literally, a sword) is a shooter. The team with the ball, or balls, closest to the pallino at the end of the frame scores points. Twelve points wins the game.
"It's more than a game," Gia says. "We do get excited because we're Italian, of course. Some of us who are Sicilian we get more excited than other Italians."
She was born in Cefalu, Sicily; her mother's folks were farmers, her father's fishermen. All of them played boccie.
"Oh yeah, my father and my grandfather," she says. "Every generation played boccie. They used to play on the beach. We played boccie all the time in Italy. It's one of the national games, that and soccer, or as they call it, football.
"I came over on the Andrea Doria in 1953, a year before it sank," she says. She was 6. "My mom was very brave and we came 3,500 miles to this country. And since then I've moved 1,200 feet. I've never moved out of this damned neighborhood."
Her father got a job with the Department of Public Works, her mother with Raleigh's.