Among my favorite Italian places is the Highwood Bocce Club. Whether you play bocce or cards, enjoy a glass of wine or a cappuccino, the bocce club is the place to be. For young and wise alike, there is always something going on at 440 Bank Lane in Highwood.
The history of the game of bocce as described by the United States Bocce Federation recounts an elaborate evolution of the game since 5600 B.C., when a similar game was played in ancient Egypt with polished stones. Somehow the Ancient Greeks learned to play the game in approximately 800 B.C. It is purported that the Romans learned from the Greeks and spread the game throughout the Empire. Some claim that they played with coconuts brought from Africa, then later with balls carved from olive wood.
Emperor Augustus is credited with expanding the game as a pastime of the ruling class. Historical figures such as Greek physician Hippocrates as well as Galileo and DaVinci are believed to have played the game for enjoyment and its health benefits of relieving arthritis.
As the game spread throughout Europe, it began to get a bad rap. Apparently, the game was interfering with military exercises as well as the work the peasants were supposed to be accomplish because they were too busy playing bocce. King Carlos the IV and V prohibited the playing of bocce, and in 1576 the Republic of Venice publicly condemned the sport and issued fines and imprisoned players who were caught. The Catholic Church also officially prohibited its clergy and members from playing, claiming that bocce was a means of gambling. The game waned, but eventually experienced a resurgence when Garibaldi popularized it while he worked to unify and nationalize Italy in the late 1800s.
The history of the Highwood Bocce Club has more humble beginnings, but no less interesting. As I started interviewing some of the wiser members of our community, their oral history helped me learn the following.
Since Italians settled in Highwood in the early 1900s, the game of bocce came with them. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, there were several groups of men playing bocce in large open spaces. One of our community’s favorite characters, Dr. Bernardi, helped to foster the sport. He and a group of men played on Sunday afternoons in the field behind his office building. Arturo Amidei hosted another group of guys. Bozo and Chick played with a group where the City Hall is now. Eventually, along with the help of Bruno Bertucci and Gabriel Viti, the men petitioned the mayor for a place to play. Mayor Fidel Ghini offered a nice piece of property along the tracks that the city had just acquired. If they wanted, the men could play there. So, in 1967, on an open field along the tracks, players began to create bocce courts.
In the early 1970s, the players, along with the blessing of the mayor, replaced their courts with a building they pretty much built themselves. “Within the community, we had every type of contractor,” Leo Ori explained, “every field from start to finish: concrete, masonry, bricklayers, plumbers, etc.” And so the Highwood Bocce Club began its existence. There have been several additions in the intervening decades to bring the building to its current state. Most recently, the roof of the court building was raised and the courts were refabricated with state-of-the-art synthetic court material. The contractor and the materials came from Italy, helping to create some of the best in the country.
Mario Massa has been instrumental in growing the sport, both in Highwood and in the United States. He is a past president of the U.S. Bocce Federation, and has been honored for organizing U.S. participation in the sport. He has even received a medal from Romolo Rizzoli, the president of World Bocce Federation in Rome, in honor of everything he accomplished. Mario was on the team in 1987 that first represented the United States during international play in Italy. Since then, has represented America at least a half a dozen times in international competitions. He was instrumental in bringing the Bocce World Cup to Highwood in 1996. Sixteen nations were represented, with the Highwood team coming in sixth overall. In his honor, the Highwood Bocce Club planned the first annual Mario Massa Open Bocce Tournament in April of this year.
Today, the Highwood Bocce Club is a meeting place for Italians and Americans alike. According to current president Paul Giannetti, membership exceeds more than 420, and the game draws men and women who play during open court hours or on leagues. Paul is working hard to promote the club, offering pertinent services to its members and continuing the great traditions of the bocce club. The facility offers banquet amenities as well as an Italian espresso bar. It can be rented out for parties, celebrations and fundraisers. Member dinner dances draw crowds. Recently Paul invited women members to prepare homemade specialties like tortellini and tortellaci to be served at these dinners. Among the events the club offers are an annual summer golf tournament, September wine tasting and member dinners. In collaboration with the Modenese Society, the two organizations offer Easter Coccetto and presents from Santa Claus for the children and grandchildren of members.
On my recent visit to the club, I spoke to Marzio Piagentini, an avid bocce player, to get an idea of what the club means to the members. Not only is it a great meeting place to enjoy a game of bocce or cards, or have a glass of wine with friends. To him, the club offers entertainment as well as a culture. Marzio would love to see the club draw a younger membership, perhaps offering events that enable our young Italians to stay in touch with their rich Italian culture. Who wouldn’t agree with Marzio? We have so many things to be proud of, being Italian, and continuing the tradition of the Highwood Bocce Club is just one of the many!
If you have a story to share about our North Shore Italians, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to share it with others.