Rolling balls and busting chops: Regardless of class, bocce boys keep an ancient game current

Adam Ribaudo bowls during the weekly South Philadelphia Bocce League games at the Guerin Recreation Center in South Philadelphia. Behind him are team members (in Italia jackets, left to right) John Palella, Perry Coco, and Ralph Lombardi.

Once there was this guy from Jersey who played bocce in his Speedos.

It wasn’t so much that the man wore them, said Perry Coco, remembering the moment so many years ago; it’s that the other guys let him. This is Coco’s point.

Men who play bocce “know how to have fun,” said Coco, 60, these days the commissioner of the South Philadelphia Bocce League. An L&I construction supervisor, he reminisced about the scantily clad old-timer the other night as a couple of games raged under the harsh fluorescent lights of the Guerin Recreation Center at 16th and Jackson.

“Never forget,” he intoned gravely, “this is a hard game to play.”

The league attracts a wide group of South Philly guys, nearly all with working-class roots. While some have moved on to middle-class lives, they remain blue-collar at heart, and acknowledge bloodlines to sword-wielding Roman ancestors who developed their good and glorious game.

“We’re in different [socioeconomic] classes, but the common link is South Philly,” said Mario Nicolai, 62, senior vice president at PNC Bank Operations. “We don’t look at each other by class. We grew up together. Our kids grew up together. This is about camaraderie.”

Even as people assimilate into upper classes, they often retain the class of their family of origin, noted Jack Metzgar, working-class expert and professor emeritus of humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago. “Often, it’s the strength of your attachment to your working-class parents that keeps you working class. People understand their roots and hold on.”

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Larry Del Spechia (standing on barrier) tries to get a consensus from the members whether to play on Halloween night (they voted “no”). To the left of him are Perry Coco and Mario Nicolai (right).

League member Frank DiCicco, 71, former city councilman and now chairman of the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustments, may appear to outsiders as someone who’s moved beyond his South Philly working-class beginnings. But it was clear as he played with gesticulating paisans sporting crucifixes and white sneakers that he remains in working-class heaven.

“It doesn’t get any better than this,” he beamed blissfully. “A bunch of guys cursing, yelling in friendly competition. It’s my roots.”

We could all use something like this in our lives:

Some 70 childhood pals meeting weekly in the old neighborhood to play bocce, rolling balls and busting chops — insulting one another in imaginatively cruel ways, then laughing it off.

There’s never a need to explain yourself to a guy who’s been marinating for decades in the same South Philly Sunday gravy as you: A curl of the lip, a shake of the head, and you get the gist of what he’s thinking.

In a world where people walk around detached and remote, spending Tuesday nights with guys who get the gist is a splendidly therapeutic thing.

As the games went, their ruthless Machiavellian intricacies became apparent. Bocce’s object is to roll a large ball close to a smaller one, called a pallino. Before you release a ball, you must decide whether to let it kiss the pallino or crack your opponent’s ball out of position with a savage roll like a blow from Caesar’s right hand.

A game of kissing and cracking is an apt metaphor for tumultuous working-class life: knowing when to be nuanced, knowing when to be merciless.

It’s malevolent bowling, where you do violence to the other guy’s ball instead of a set of standing pins. Then you argue till you’re stop-sign red about who got closer to the target ball.

“Outsiders wouldn’t understand the yelling,” said Ed Barranco, 65, a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef and owner of the Chef’s Table catering company in the neighborhood.

“Or the cursing,” added Carmen “Bartsy” Bartolomeo, 82, a former welterweight boxer. “But if you really want to hear cursing, go to one of the women’s games.”

The guys know they need young blood to keep the league vital. That’s why they’re always happy to see Jesse Seccia, 33, brought to the game by his father. Studying cybersecurity at Pennsylvania State University, Seccia is aware he’s climbing the ladder out of the working class. Still, he believes bocce is an equalizer.

“It doesn’t matter what you do for a living when you come here to play,” he said. “Any type of social class or barrier is meaningless. There’s no emphasis on who’s where in life. Bocce is strictly about our culture.”

Another bocce pup, Adam Ribaudo, all of 27, is a muscled, tattooed financial analyst with respect for the old ways. “I’m here because of my heritage,” he said. Still, Ribaudo can’t help displaying his true millennial character: He’s the only person in the place who constantly checks his phone between bowls.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Adam Ribaudo checks his phone between bowls.

The league could do with a little modernizing, though, according to Jim Carfagno, 59, a Bishop Neumann High School graduate like a lot of the fellows, and a cybersecurity engineer (and Seccia’s uncle) who works for the Lockheed Martin aerospace company in Moorestown.

“Do you believe these guys used to keep the game schedule with pen and paper?” asked Carfagno, who wore a black “Legalize Marinara” T-shirt, complete with a leafy tomato plant. “I put it online. There are maybe 70 guys here and only 15 are on any kind of social media. Unbelievable!”

Take it easy, Jimmy. Not everyone can be 21st-century au courant while participating in a 700 B.C. game.

What’s important is allowing tradition to thrive.

And, Barranco added, “We have fun regardless of blue or white collar. No one here counts somebody else’s money. It’s all about competition and a game we learned from our fathers.

“These are all great guys.”