The Bocce Boys of Corona
“Red!” Nicky shouts across the court. He lets the ball drop to his feet and walks towards Dennis, who’s trying to figure out whether red or green is closest to the pallino.
Nicky’s gait is predatory. The agitated octogenarian has been playing here for hours without so much as a sip of water. “Red, red, red, red, red!” he insists. If the call is red, then his opponents will have the lead. But his team will gain the next throw, giving them a chance to roll closer to the pallino or shoot the infringing red out of range. “Whattaya talk about? Red!”
“Green,” replies Dennis, pulling a worn tape measure out of his pocket. He draws the coiled strip from the pallino to the nearby green ball, notes the distance, then does the same to a red ball sitting just a few inches further in another direction.
“Not even close,” he affirms, while Nicky—also known in this part of Queens as Nicola, or Nico—wedges his right foot between the red ball and the pallino. His left foot follows, then three fingers hit the ground to complete the survey. Just the other night, he went through the exact same routine, but in reverse, challenging a measurement made by footsteps and fingers and demanding that a carpenter’s folding ruler be used to double-check the call.
“Green,” asserts Dennis without hesitation, walking back to his perch on a nearby bench. “Not even close. Don’t QUESTION me!”
Nicky relents, trudging wordlessly back to the far end of the court. It’s a familiar routine to anyone who watches the bocce games in Corona. To Nicky it’s a way of life. In retirement, the bocce player who once competed at national tournaments spends his days and nights playing $5 games. After every other throw he ambles to and fro, hovering over the balls where they stop and challenging every call he finds remotely questionable.
Every so often Nicky threatens to leave the game, provoking a flurry of thick accents and hand gestures before abruptly dropping the matter and marching back to his side of the court. Sometimes a tight-lipped grin can be spotted on his face by the time he picks up the ball and gets back into the game.
“He’s like the spirit of the park,” comments Ramon, a Colombian immigrant who learned the game over the course of a decade, joining the club of locals who play alongside Nicky, even on his most temperamental days.
“Yeah. A bad spirit,” Dennis jokes.
Nicky, along with the other aging Italian men who pepper Corona, is so much a part of the neighborhood that it’s difficult for spectators to notice his silhouette fading into history. Maybe that’s why he clings so tightly to every game.
* * *
Italian-Americans have been living in Corona since before the start of the twentieth century, when Corona Avenue was an electric trolley road, and the 7 train terminated at 103rd Street. Divided by Roosevelt Avenue, the Queens neighborhood was dominated during the postwar decade by black Americans on the north side and by Italian immigrants on the south. During the second half of the century, an influx of immigrants from South and Central America, coupled with a slow but sustained flight of residents to the suburbs, transformed the core of the neighborhood—not to mention its faces.
“It was slow,” says Queens Borough Historian Jack Eichenbaum, of the Hispanic influx. “It was never like blockbusting.”
One of many highlights in Eichenbaum’s urban geography tours of New York is a four-block stretch of 43rd Avenue in Corona, where one hundred years’ worth of architecture has been casually preserved. A lot of Corona’s housing is visually similar, if not quite as historic; small apartment buildings and two-family homes sit side by side, ages plainly marked and head counts given away only by the number of satellite dishes jerry-rigged on the eaves.
“Corona’s experienced a lot of change,” he says, “but never the rapid, destructive change that’s happened in other neighborhoods. It’s changed in ethnicity, but it’s the same in terms of class.”
The ethnic change, though, has been massive. What was once a completely Italian neighborhood is now less than ten percent white and over sixty percent Hispanic. 103rd Street Station is flanked by what is probably the country’s largest Pollo Campero, a Central American fried chicken chain whose building in Corona dwarfs the nearby McDonald’s franchise. Open-air Italian markets, salumerias and bakeries preparing peaches-and-cream cake for teenage birthday parties have been reduced to a handful of shops dotting a landscape filled out with bodegas, Latin American street food, reggaeton blasting from cars and all manners of fútbol jerseys.
William F. Moore Park, a triangle of public space straddled by Corona Avenue, 51st Avenue, and 108th Street, is the only obvious reminder of the neighborhood’s Italian heritage. And the bocce court is the heart of the park, which is known—affectionately or dismissively, depending on the conversation—as “Spaghetti Park.” The two are part and parcel, a magnet for the Italian old-timers and a source of nostalgia for the New York that once was.
* * *
The city’s first public bocce court was built in 1934, but even after city-sponsored courts had spread across the boroughs, small groups of Italian immigrants would still set up their own private games after work. AnnMarie Priolo, a Corona native whose family sold their house and moved to more suburban Little Neck in 1974, remembers being taken to a scratch bocce court, in a vacant lot called “The Dumps” by neighborhood kids.
“It was kind of an out for them,” she recalls, summoning the image of her Calabrian grandfather taking her to a refuge where older Italian men would play bocce, drink wine and smoke cigars. “An after-work kind of thing, just to get out of the house or get away from the wives and the kids.”
The games, which Priolo remembers as quiet, private, and dignified, were almost beside the point. At the age of six, what struck her most—and what sticks with her today—was a feeling of importance. “It was almost like they brought over a piece of their culture into a new place, and wanted to keep a piece of it."
The bocce court at William F. Moore Park was established sometime after World War II. Framed in concrete and layered lightly with sand, the court has been renovated several times since its construction. Two strings of red, green, and white Christmas lights stretch overhead, adding some color to the massive fluorescent bulbs that illuminate the court from nightfall to midnight.
While many of the neighborhood’s Italian landmarks are no more, each side of the triangular park is anchored by a modern Italian-American institution. To the east stands the Lemon Ice King of Corona, which has served Italian ices in paper cups since 1944. Across the street from the ice stand is Corona Pizza, where a young AnnMarie would meet her friends to grab a slice and cruise the neighborhood after school.
Watching over the park’s west end is Park Side Restaurant, known for its Italian fare, rich atmosphere and reputed mafia associations. The restaurant’s owner, Anthony Federici, has been identified by federal authorities as a former captain of the Genovese crime family. At the park, though, he’s known as a caretaker.
Since its opening in 1980, the Park Side has been instrumental in keeping the park clean and providing for its maintenance, going so far as to pay for repairs or send men into the bocce court to cool off drunk or belligerent players. A few doors down from the restaurant, a private club managed by the restaurant gives players like Nicky a place to use the bathroom, should they ever drag themselves from a match.
Community-oriented mobsters aside, Spaghetti Park is not without its dark corners. On March 28, 1991, Dominican resident Manuel Mayi was approached at the side of the park by a group of white youths. The gang assaulted Manuel, chasing him for nearly a mile before beating the eighteen-year-old to death with baseball bats. While the precise motivations and series of events leading to the murder may never be clear, Manuel’s mother Altagracia has pushed continuously to have the case re-opened, re-classified as a hate crime and resolved with a conviction.
Ms. Mayi’s yearly rallies and demonstrations in the neighborhood frame the peculiar nature of Corona’s development. When presented with stories of displacement and street crime, the well-to-do residents of New York tend to cast danger in the trope of gentrification: white residents and white money move into a poorer neighborhood, boxing out local minorities. But in Corona Heights, Manuel Mayi died at the hands of a white gang after most whites had vacated the premises, overtaken by leaps and bounds by the Hispanic majority. The case remains unsolved.
* * *
“When you go through the initial change, like when it’s actually starting, that’s the worst part,” notes Vinnie Barbaccia, co-owner of the Lemon Ice King, where white and Hispanic youths now work the night shift together without missing a scoop. When his parents decided to sell their home, he realized that the Corona he grew up in might become an entirely different place. Like Jack Eichenbaum, though, he’s developed a positive outlook about the pace of change and the new faces of the neighborhood.
“I’ve been here twenty-one years now. We’ve seen the stabilization of it,” he says with confidence. “What saved this neighborhood is hard-working people. It sounds corny, but they want for their kids what our parents wanted for our kids, so they open small businesses, or they work for whatever jobs they work. They bought their homes, which is the key to everything, as far as keeping it solid.”
The ice stand, one of New York’s most congenial institutions, is fueled by this pride in neighborhood over race. Since Vinnie and his partner Michael took over the Lemon Ice King—in the same year that Manuel Mayi was killed just down the street—his business has only drawn a more diverse following from all over New York. Alongside Italian classics like lemon and pistachio are newer, more tropical flavors, a token of goodwill and good business for Hispanic customers. It’s not unheard of for Vinnie’s coconut ice to sell out before the day is over.
Down the street, Franco’s Meat and Deli underscores a shift towards reconciliation, if not outright recognition of the neighborhood’s more ominous moments. On one of the days that Nicky is threatening to quit a bocce game at the park, butcher Franco Mattei is hand-carving pork into thin slices and stacking them for delivery to Tortilleria Nixtamal, a popular Mexican restaurant and tortilla distributor just around the corner.
Pounding each slice with a mallet before adding it to the stack, Franco declares matter-of-factly, “They don’t do veal like we used do. They don’t do fresh Italian sausage. They don’t do none of those things that we grew up with, so I have to sell Spanish-style products in order to survive, you know?”
Franco, who moved to Queens from a town just outside of Rome when he was eleven years old, took over the butcher shop at 104th Street in 1974. Even then, in the midst of Corona’s demographic turnover, business was booming. Today, he composes e-mail using the handle “lastbutcher.” The deal to supply Nixtamal with custom-carved pork, beef and lamb for taco fillings is one of the reasons his meat shop hasn’t gone out of business.
Having sunk his life’s savings into buying the small building that houses his shop on the first floor, Franco still works six twelve-hour days a week, tacking eight more hours onto Sundays to improve his margins.
In higher-income neighborhoods, sustainably sourced meat shops are supported by a rising consumer interest in the craft of butchery. In Corona, where no one is clamoring for grass-fed beef or free-range chicken thighs, Franco buys from the big processors. He applies considerable skill to pick out what he calls “cancers” in the meat, cutting out mysterious knots and discolored spots that untrained hands would never catch. Franco’s lifetime of experience is a substitute for the higher-cost supply chain that most of his customers can’t afford. His prices are lower than Key Food, and his take-out menu—which includes sandwiches specials named “Robo-Cop” and “Spanish Steak”—reads like a time capsule.
“Mi Amor!” calls a young Honduran woman, beaming at Franco and asking him questions about the meat case. The butcher chats with the woman in fluent Spanish, verbally diagramming cuts of beef and alternately giving instructions to Arturo, his assistant. He jokes that he’s being phased out, and wants the customer—a former restaurant owner from Miami—to take over his shop.
“It’s time for the old lions to retire and have the young lions come in,” he comments with a chuckle. “There’s no moral good or bad. It’s a fact of life. You gotta learn to to adjust it, accept it, embrace it, go with it, play with it, change it.”
A good game of bocce plays out like a conversation. Each team receives four balls (typically green or red) that barely fit into a grown man’s palm. At the start of each round, one team rolls the pallino, a smaller white ball, to the opposite end of the court, a rectangular strip that’s a few yards wide and over thirty yards long.
The pallino becomes a target. The object of each round is to land your team’s four balls closer to the pallino than the opponents’. As soon as one of your balls is closest, your opponents get to throw until they reclaim the lead or run out of balls. When all throws have been made, you receive one point for the closest ball, two points if you also have the next closest, and so forth. A new round begins; the game ends when a team scores twelve points.
The mechanics are call-and-response. Scoring points requires careful placement, but “shooting” out your opponents’ points at the right moment is essential to holding ground. Sharp players can either shoot out a ball with pinpoint accuracy or roll with enough finesse to brush the pallino aside, moving the court’s center of gravity for a crafty win. The best performers draw on an intimate knowledge of the court, relying on keen awareness of players’ strengths and weaknesses to get through each match.
“Actually, it’s not really an Italian game,” says John Pistone, a former city bocce champion who visits the park in Corona every now and then. Recounting opponents he’s challenged throughout the state, John alludes to the French game boules (which plays like a cousin to bocce), and calls out other European and South American immigrants who play these games with just as much fervor as the Italians who popularized the game in New York.
The global heart of the game is surely on display in Corona, which Pistone is quick to call out. “It’s better known as Spaghetti Park. Now we gotta change to ‘Rice Park,’ or ‘Plantains,’ you know?”
Each year, when the first balmy days hit New York, players from all neighborhoods of Queens step into the triangle for bocce marathons. In its heyday, the court would run games until four a.m. The park’s curfew has receded, but on summer nights the balls keep rolling until the lights shut off, somewhere close to midnight.
Like the shifting pattern of balls on a bocce court, players at the park circle each other in a scrimmage that’s more communal than oppositional. Spectators (which includes any player who isn’t about to throw) often shout, “Punto!” (“point!”) or “Pallino!” calling out the optimal move for every situation. When a shot is missed, rejoinders of “Mañana, mañana” float across the park, and everyone adopts the same, exaggerated wag of the finger when signaling that a shot is no good. Ices from the Lemon Ice King can be spotted from any corner, and Styrofoam containers of “comida tipica” are as commonplace as a slice from Corona Pizza.
“We get along great,” says Pistone, greeting familiar players with a friendly, “como está?” as he observes the nighttime matches. “They don’t speak English very well, a lot of them, as you can see. So we speak Italian, English, Spanish, and God knows what others. And maybe with our hands, too.”
Towards the end of the night, Nicky has gone home. A small group of middle-aged men enter the park, apparently from dinner at the Park Side. Dressed in tucked-in dress shirts and khakis, they stroll toward the court with a slight air of nostalgia. Men like these are a common sight in Spaghetti Park, Italian-Americans of the old guard visiting from other parts of Queens and Long Island, where families of the old Corona have made their new homes.
Claudio, a popular player who lives just off the park, lets the men know that a game is about to start. The soft-spoken Dominican immigrant, who’s been playing bocce for the better part of a decade, has a seasoned face that somewhat resembles the president's. At Spaghetti Park he’s been called “Obama” so nonchalantly that some players have never learned his real name.
Obama responds to the nickname readily, stepping into the court when he hears that the game needs an eighth player. Moving lithely and quietly, he’s known as an expert shooter; his offensive throws tend to be the last word in a match. After just three rounds, the score is 10-0 in his favor.
“Whose idea was this?” quips one of the newcomers with a nervous chortle.
“What do you expect?” his friend swipes back. “You’re playing against the president.”
At 11-0, the opposing team starts to gain ground. Their count climbs to one point, then three, then six. Shots are called. Measurements are taken. Good-natured jeers sound from the benches. One of the opposing players gains Obama’s attention.
“He play before?” asks Obama, impressed by the rebound.
“We all play,” responds his opponent with a grin.
A few minutes later, the game is over—advantage, Obama. The natives, now visitors to their old stomping grounds, cede the court to the newcomers. The newcomers, made old-timers by way of bocce, have moved closer to the pallino, standing in the company of Tony Federici, Vinnie Babaccia, Franco Mattei, and the inexorable Nicky.
Before walking off the court, one of the challengers opens up his wallet and pulls out a wad of bills.
“How much do we owe you?” he asks, no stranger to the $5 game.
“No, no, no,” assures Obama, wagging his finger with a smile. “We play. We play.”
* * *
James Boo is a freelance journalist and the Editor-in-Chief of Real Cheap Eats, a locals’ guide to New York food for $10 or less. You can read more of his stories at jamesboo.com.