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THE GENTLE ART OF BOCCE

A few weeks after taking up Bocce, Olive Provencher already knew enough to give sage advice to her partner.

"Take it easy, now," she said before every roll, "Be gentle . . . not too hard."

Maybe she catches on quickly, or maybe it's easy once you know the meaning of the name. Learn that and you've already learned the essence of the game.

"In Italian, bocce is kiss," Tom Freda said.

Freda is one of the organizers of a new Bocce club that for a few hours every Monday and Thursday brings the gentility of his homeland to two courts recently built in a quiet corner of Delta Woods Park.

The simple object of the game is to roll a small ball into the middle of the court and then try to come as close as possible to it with a larger ball, rolled slowly over the hard-packed clay.

The balls come in restrained colors like maroon or dark green, further subdued by the dusting of clay they gather from the court. The sound, at least when the game is played right, is the barely audible one of the heavy balls rolling over hard-packed grit, and a slight, wooden-sounding knock when the two balls touch. It is a game of finesse rather than power.

"See that, the idea is touch, feeling. You got to have feeling. It's something you develop in the blood," said Al Pagano, the interim president of the club, who is better known for his outbursts at public meetings.

The yearly membership fees are $5. Members also might be asked to chip in for refreshments, because the gatherings are as much social occasions as they are sporting ones. And anyone can play, whether a member or not.

"That's the idea of the club, to meet old friends and make new ones," Freda said.

Pagano's chatter is the noisiest note in the almost Mediterranean peace that surrounds the games. On Thursday the sky was a blue like you might see in Sicily. The air was warm and breezy but not hot. Most of the players spent as much time at the picnic tables under the trees, sitting around a coffee urn and nibbling on large, soft, mild Italian cookies.

There is much talk about New York and New Jersey in the old days, when people like Pagano and Freda learned the game. But you don't have to share their background to enjoy the sport.

"We're really international," said Dixie Naro from Weeki Wachee who isn't Italian. "We have French people, English people and Canadian people."

People such as Naro and Provencher, both of whom discovered the game recently, are more typical of the players at Delta Woods and across the country.

Because of its simplicity and slow pace, Bocce courts are being built alongside shuffleboard courts all over the nation and world, said Paul Vitagliano, president of the International Bocce Association in Utica, N.Y.

His organization counted 50,000 Bocce sets sold in 1976, compared with 1.5-million sets in 1990.

"It's becoming exceptionally popular," he said.

But it certainly is not new, he said. There is evidence the game was first played by Roman soldiers in the Punic Wars more than 200 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, Vitagliano said.

The game spread, as the empire did, into most European countries. In England its derivative is lawn bowling and in France a similar game is called petanque. If all related sports are included, it is one of the most-played games in the world, he said.

Freda, who moved to New Jersey from Salerno, Italy, in 1921, can remember playing with the older men in his neighborhood of Newark. When Pagano was young, he played on Sunday afternoons in parks and in the cramped back yards of apartment buildings in Brooklyn and the lower East Side of Manhattan.

But World War II and Benito Mussolini's alliance with Nazi Germany discouraged Italian immigrants from playing and caused the game to virtually disappear in this country, Vitagliano said.

"There was no outward expression of Italian sport," he said.

When games began to sprout up again several years after the war, it was in informal enclaves in parks and yards in smaller towns across the country, he said.

His organization was formed in 1976 to standardize rules and spread the word about Bocce.

The one who has taken these standards to heart is Freda. When he moved here in December, he was thrilled to find Bocce, but not quite satisfied with the version he saw being played at Delta Woods.

"Nobody was here who knew anything about Bocce," he said.

The courts were built by county workers for about $2,500, according to guidelines in a recreational pamphlet put out by the U.S. Navy. They are longer and wider than the international rules call for. The terra cotta-colored surface dissolves into the consistency of a sand trap after several hours of play.

"The guy who put these courts in, he puts in volleyball courts for a living. What is this?" Pagano said.

Freda has persuaded the county to bring the courts down to the regulation size of 60 feet by 12 feet and to re-cover them with a harder surface.

Work should begin within two weeks, said Pat Fagan, the manager of the county's Community Service Department. The materials will cost about $1,600 and the work will be done by county workers.

Another rule Freda insists on is that the large ball be within three feet of the palinna ("small ball" in Italian) before a point is awarded. He showed the ultimate arbitrator of close calls, a tin can with a television antenna attached to the top. The can fits over the palinna and the antenna is stretched out to the larger balls, giving an exact comparison of which is closest.

"I made these last night," Freda said, showing off the two cans.

Rolling balls over the uneven surface for 40 feet or so, and getting them to come to rest within three feet of a target, is a tricky matter. The games, which are played to 12 points, can go on for hours.

Provencher's game had started a little after 10 a.m. and at noon it was still hovering around the halfway point. The common joke was that it would be called on account of darkness.

But nobody seemed to object. The weather was too pleasant, the company too congenial.

"Outdoor sports, this is my cup of tea," Provencher said.

"It's a very nice group," Naro said.

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