South Philadelphia: Bocce League Preserves Italian Tradition

Growing up in South Philadelphia, Larry Del Spechio spent a lot of time around bocce courts.

He hardly played, though.

“When we were young, we couldn’t play because the old guys didn’t want you to,” said Del Spechio, who now lives in South Jersey. “They used to say, ‘Watch it and listen to what we do, and when you get older, then you’ll know what to do.’”

At the age of 83, he now plays bocce in Danny Duvall’s Tuesday Night Bocce League at Guerin Recreation Center. The six-team league, named after founder Danny Duvall, who passed away last year. Del Spechio has competed once a week from September to May for the past 12 years.

Players measure distance from the ball to the “pallino”

The game has roots in Italy, dating back to the Roman Empire. In Italian, bocce is the plural of “boccia,” which means the sports term “bowl.” According to the United States Bocce Federation, bocce is the third-most participated-in sport in world history, behind golf and soccer.

Typically, two teams of two to four players roll four balls toward a smaller ball, the “pallino” in Italian. The team with the closest ball – or balls – to the pallino gets one point per ball. At Guerin, games are played to 12 points.

“It’s a fun night out,” said Jim Matt, vice president of the league. “There’s a good rapport between a bunch of the guys. And we enjoy ourselves.”

The league consists of mostly older men who have played for much of the league’s existence. With bocce being an Italian tradition, it has become important for them to keep it going, as well as shepherd in the younger generation.

“It’s an Italian thing,” Del Spechio said. “It’s something you cherish as you get older. You cherish your Italian ways. That’s what we strive to do.”

“There’s a good connection,” said Joe Terranova, 75, of Williamstown, N.J. “It’s a good mix of older fellas like me and then some younger guys. It’s a great tradition that comes from the old country that we keep going here.”

South Philadelphia has been known for its large concentration of Italian-Americans. Immigrants began settling in the area in heavy numbers following the Second World War. According to Jordan Stanger-Ross’s book, “Staying Italian: Urban Change and Ethnic Life in Postwar Toronto and Philadelphia,” in 1980, more than 40,000 of the more than 55,000 Italians who lived as a majority in their census tracts in Philadelphia lived in South Philadelphia.

The bocce alleys at Guerin Recreation Center

Communities became tight-knit, with large families living close by and Catholic parishes serving as central points. Real estate was affected when families would pass on houses to the next generation, or attempt to sell only to other Italians.

“When I was a kid, in the summer, we would all sit outside,” Del Spechio said. “The community was so close. My aunt and my grandmother only lived a block away. It was a happy place to grow up.”

“This was a predominantly Italian neighborhood,” said John Penza, 48, who moved to South Philadelphia at the age of four after being born in Milan, Italy. “You walk down the street during the day and everybody smells the gravy.”

However, shifts in demographics now show that the Italian-American population in South Philadelphia is dropping.

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According to Census reports, those living in South Philadelphia with Italian ancestry in 2014 numbered 28,068, making up 28.03 percent of the total population of 100,127. This was down from the 34, 215 living there in 2000, which made up 36.25 percent of the total population of 94,220.

With the decline of Italian-Americans in that section of the city, an influx of other residents began. The Asian population has increased from 9,265 in 2000 to 16,241 in 2014. Also, the population of Hispanics/Latinos has boomed to 8,186 in 2014 after totaling 3,135 in 2000. Both White and African-American numbers fell during the same span.

“You still have little tightly knit neighborhoods, but the rest is new people coming in,” Penza said. “On our street, you used to know everybody. It’s totally changing.”

“When I was a kid up until about 18, I never had the key to the house because we never locked the door,” Del Spechio said. “If we went somewhere, we would tell the neighbor to watch the house. You tell the neighbor today, he may steal your house.”

A plaque in honor of founder Danny Duvall

A changing landscape in the neighborhood means that playing bocce on Thursday nights is more than just a game.

“As an Italian in this neighborhood, without bocce, there’s really nothing,” Penza said. “I did this with my father, my uncles, cousins, brothers-in-law. It’s that one night where you feel like a little Italian kid. No worries. You just forget about everything for two, three hours.”

“This group is what we call ’99 percent South Philly’ and that hasn’t changed,” Matt said. “They’re all the same type of guys. The young guys act just like the older generation. It’s like repetition of life.”

Although the Italian-American population in South Philadelphia may not be what it was, Danny Duvall’s Tuesday Night Bocce League strives to keep the culture around for as long as they can.

“On Tuesday nights, we sit down and talk about the old days,” Del Spechio said. “We try to keep it going. We don’t want it go out because this is the last resort.”

-Text, images and video by Tim Merrick.

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