National bocce tournament brings volo to S.F.

Marco Cuneo prepares a shot during opening games of the National Championships at the
Aquatic Park Bocce Club of San Francisco. (Brant Ward / The Chronicle)

(06-21) 19:48 PDT --

Back in the day, the old-timers say, enormous crowds would fill the benches along the packed earth lanes at the end of San Francisco's Beach Street to watch teams play the ancient game of bocce.

Especially on Columbus Day, recalled Ermanno Facchini, 74, who still takes the bus from San Rafael to the Aquatic Park Bocce Club several days a week to watch the games. The club was once the end of the holiday parade route, and beauty queens and the mayor himself would join the cheering throngs of spectators.

"It was fantastic," said Facchini. Then he gestured at the handful of people watching bocce on a sunny Sunday afternoon and added, "Now, it's finito."

Well, not quite. Bocce survives in San Francisco at the Aquatic Park club, which this week is hosting the opening games of the National Championships for the very first time even though the club dates back a half century or more. But even the organizers of the tournament, which began Sunday in San Francisco and continues today, wish there were more players to score.

"We have this handful," said Danny Passaglia, president of the United States Bocce Federation, who came to San Francisco from Chicago to officiate the games. "This is our national tournament, and we have six people participating."

In part, that turnout is a matter of self selection. The current San Francisco tournament is specifically for the form of bocce called volo, the oldest and - according to its enthusiasts - the most difficult of the several forms of bocce. Other forms will be played when the national championship tournament continues in Livermore later this week.

The top players in each style will go on to compete internationally, Passaglia said.

Benjamin Tosi, current president of the club, is a volo aficionado with little interest in the looser, open-rule form that has become popular in America."It's like when you go to a bar with your buddies and you're playing pool, and you come home and turn on ESPN and there's a billiards tournament," he said. "This is the billiards game. There is no slop."

Common lineage

There are many forms of bocce - and several versions of volo alone. The rules can be complicated but share a common lineage stretching back to the prehistoric origin of bocce, which most likely involved one bored Roman soldier looking at another and saying words to the effect of, "Bet you I can hit that rock way over there with this rock." Except he said it in Latin.

The popular form of bocce - called open rule - is played with plastic balls; volo is played with bronze balls that cost $250 or more for a set of four. And while open rule involves a degree of luck as the ball is rolled toward a target ball, in volo the player must hurl the 3-pound ball with precision nearly the 90-foot length of the court to strike the target ball without bouncing or hitting any obstacles.

It's a tricky enough feat that scores stay low, with each point pulling a cheer from onlookers who hear the distinctive metallic tonk! of a clean strike.


It was that tonk! that drew Tosi, then working as a valet parker, to the bocce court a few years back. Though half-Italian, he had never seen the game until he followed the sound of Marco Cuneo playing at the Aquatic Park club, on the same packed earth where Cuneo's father and mother played before him and where his uncle still plays.

"People go on family vacations," Cuneo said. "We have family bocce ball tournaments."

They say that bocce takes an afternoon to learn, and perhaps a decade to excel. But today, Tosi and Cuneo are the top two volo players in the nation, Passaglia said. And, perhaps as important, they are young men - 33 and 35, respectively - in what is often seen as a game for old people, a stereotype with enough reality to contribute to the lagging turnout at tournaments.

Part of the culture

"We're fortunate that we have people like Marco and Benji who are young and energetic and want to keep it going," said Passaglia, who sees the game as similar in value to ethnic music, food or language. "Do we really want to see things disappear that are part of our culture?"

Cuneo's mother, Tina, once a player herself, watched her son Sunday and recalled when there were more lanes and players at Aquatic Park, and the even greater turnout for the games in her youth in Italy.

"Hundreds, hundreds," she said. "And the food, and the wine! And they always had the court in the most beautiful area." She sighed, looking around the court, lined at the moment with shipping containers providing temporary storage for the nearby Maritime Museum and temporary fences blocking the view of the bay.

Even this location is in jeopardy, Tosi said: A planned Muni extension may force the club to move from its longtime home. In the meantime, he and Cuneo have their missions: competing to go to the international competitions to raise the expectations for American bocce, and reaching out to younger people to introduce them to what the pair clearly sees as the only true form of bocce. They don't plan to see the game fade away.

"It's like keeping a family heritage alive," Cuneo said. "I'll play until I'm 70 if I have to to keep the game going."

Volo tourney

What: National Volo Championship
When: Continuing today
Where: Aquatic Park Bocce Club, near the end of Beach Street in S.F.
More information: Check for more on the game and this week's tournament in Livermore.
E-mail Matthew B. Stannard at

Delio Cuneo picks up a bocce ball. Volo is played with bronze balls that cost $250 or more
for a set of four. (Brant Ward / The Chronicle)

Delio Cuneo makes a successful shot early in the opening games of the National Championships
at the Aquatic Park Bocce Club of San Francisco. (Brant Ward / The Chronicle)