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San Mateo Bocce Club hopes to keep tradition alive

Joseph Lencioni (right) and other members of San Mateo's Peninsula Italian American Social Club during weekly bocce league play.
Joseph Lencioni (right) and other members of San Mateo's Peninsula Italian American Social Club during weekly bocce league play.
Vanessa Rancaño/KQED

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We go now to another civilized game, bocce. It's a traditional Italian game, but it's played all over the world, including here in California, often by Italian immigrants.

Still, as the number of new Italian immigrants dwindle, some bocce clubs are struggling to keep the tradition alive. That's the case in the the northern California town of San Mateo. The California Report's Vanessa Rancano prepared this report.

On Wednesday nights it’s league play at the Peninsula Italian American Social Club. Two dozen people fill the echo-prone hall that houses the club’s two bocce courts. One wall is painted to look like the view from a Tuscan veranda -- with stone archways and rolling hills. The other is covered with team photos dating back to the ‘70s when the bocce league first got started.

Tonight, Nerina DiBella’s team is winning. She stands at one end of a court made of sand and crushed oyster shells that’s a little shorter than a bowling lane. “Come on, Bruno! Come on, come on!” she shouts, bracing as her teammate takes a shot. It’s green team versus red team, and DiBella is watching Bruno try to roll his green balls closer to the pallino – the little white ball that’s their target. “It’s a good one,” she says. “He’s going to make it. Done!”

Teams play year-round at the club. These aren’t pros. In fact, most of the players are in their 70s, and they don’t play for big prizes. They play for fun -- mostly. “Sometimes you play for a dollar here and you’d think their life was riding on it,” says Joseph Lencioni, aka Joe, the resident jokester. “They get down on their knees and they’re checking it and they’re like, ‘Don’t touch it’ and oh boy!”

Mario Conti runs the league. “Just because you’re Italian doesn’t make you a good bocce player, let me tell you,” he says, “It’s like any other game – either you have it or you don’t.” Being Italian does help get you into this social club. When it was started in the ‘30s it was called the New Deal Italian American Federation. At first they held meetings in members’ basements. Now it’s mostly a place where people socialize at dinners and cultural events.

Mario and his wife, Nella, were born in Italy and grew up in the Bay Area. Nella Conti remembers the South San Francisco of her childhood as a tight-knit Italian community. The city was completely Italian, she says, “It was like being in Italy almost. It was great.” Mario Conti remembers it the same way. “You go to the bank, everyone spoke Italian,” he says. “Just like now you walk downtown South San Francisco, everyone speaks Spanish.”

The Contis say the social club keeps them tied to their roots, to their families and to their dwindling Italian American community here.

For Alberto Biancalana, who’s originally from Lucca, Italy, this club is one of the best in the Bay Area. He points out that the club has more than 800 members, and it’s just one of many in the area. But they’re all in trouble if young people don’t show interest. “If the young people don’t come in, we are an endangered species,” he says. “If the young people don’t carry on with the tradition, what are you gonna do? Everything’s gonna end, see.”

In fact, on this night, there were no young players in sight, but Biancalana is hopeful that it will change. “I bet you my son would like to play if he ever felt like coming here to try,” he says. “Because that’s what it takes-- it takes a little bit to try and then you get hooked.”

Nerina DiBella watches as her teammate is inches from hitting the pallino.

“We got 2 points now!” she says. “This is it -- it’s game! We won both games. We did it, Bruno!”