Ask your average St. Louisan about the Hill in Southwest City, and you'll probably get a rundown of the neighborhood's many dining options: Cunetto's, where the lengthy-and-legendary wait for a table hasn't dimmed patrons' enthusiasm; Rigazzi's, home of the 32-ounce fishbowl beer; Dominic's, one of the city's premiere high-end Italian restaurants; and maybe Modesto or Bella Citta, two newcomers that have added Spanish and Mediterranean accents to a largely Italian scene. You might hear about the quaint street-corner groceries, bakeries and delis that thrive here, and if you're talking to someone who's really made the rounds, you'll hear about this place called Milo's, where you can play bocce out back in the beer garden.
For most, bocce also known as Italian lawn bowling is the quintessential Italian game, and you couldn't ask for a more appropriate setting in which to play than the intersection of Wilson and Marconi avenues. Directly across the street from Milo's is Amighetti's, where tour groups regularly drop in for a quick bite. And cattycorner from the bar is St. Ambrose Catholic Church, a Romanesque brick and terra cotta beauty dedicated in 1926, so much a part of the neighborhood that they still celebrate an Italian mass on the first Sunday of each month. It's only fitting that this is where most locals make their acquaintance with the game.
The game itself couldn't be much simpler a standard bocce set consists of eight bocce balls (4 1/5" in diameter, half of which are of a different color or pattern) and a smaller "pallino" (also known as an "object ball" or "jack"). Your task is to roll your team's balls closest to the pallino a team gets one point for each ball that is closer to the pallino than the other team's closest ball, and a match ends when one of the teams has reached 20 points. Courts can be any size, though most bocce organizations recommend a minimum distance of 60 feet and a minimum width of 10 feet. If you need a point of reference, think barroom shuffleboard on a grand scale.
(And before we go any further, there's one thing about bocce that we need to get straight most of us have been pronouncing it wrong. Ask any Italian speaker where you can play "bah-chi" and you'll get a quick lesson in Italian; pronounce it with a long "o" instead and you'll get the answer you're looking for.)
Bocce in St. Louis
As one might imagine, the game's had a presence on the Hill ever since Italian immigrants started settling in the area in the late 1800s. For years, the North Italian-American Mercantile Company at the corner of Shaw and Marconi (known to locals as the "Big Club" and now in use as a photographer's studio) gave residents a place to gather, socialize, drink and play. Locals also share fond memories of playing bocce at John and Rose's Bar & Grill, a favored watering hole, into the 1970s.
The Big Club eventually faded away, and when John and Rose's closed in 1975, bocce aficionados found themselves without anywhere to play, public or private. Recognizing this, a group of friends and players founded the St. Louis Bocce Club, and took on the job of converting a rundown shack at the corner of Manchester and Sublette into a home for their club. Though it wasn't an easy task (one club member describes the building before renovation as "a shithole"), thousand of volunteer hours were put into the renovations, and it served as their headquarters for 17 years.
Eventually the club returned to the Hill with the acquisition of its current building at 2210 Marconi. Again, the transformation from industrial space to club wasn't easy, but the club was able to draw on the talents of its members, and they are justifiably proud in pointing out that everything in the building was built from scratch the oak bar and the five rubberized indoor lanes, the marble tile and every single stained glass window.
These days, the Italia-America Bocce Club works hard to be a presence in the community, and sports more than 600 members. They're also quick to point out that you don't have to be Italian to join, though that group makes up a large percentage of the membership. For an annual fee of $100, members have access to the alleys themselves, as well as a host of dinners, lectures and social events. On Sundays, the club opens up to neighborhood kids, offering pizza, soda and bocce. And they share a commitment to charity involvement, supporting the Special Olympics and the St. Louis Special School District, which brings kids in for bowling on a regular basis.
If you're not ready to pony up the membership for the Italia-America Bocce Club, however, Milo's is the place to be. League activity fills the lanes Monday through Thursday, but weekends are set aside for open bowling, so you can go and get a feel for the game without the pressure of league competition. And despite what you might think, the lanes stay open throughout winter for their Polar Bear leagues. That's how dedicated some players are.
It's worth the effort to get down to the Hill for the full bocce experience. We're fortunate to have a neighborhood that's retained a lot of its original character and small-town feel, and a couple of rounds of Italian lawn bowling do the spirit a world of good.
Milo's Bocce Garden
5201 Wilson Avenue
St. Louis, MO 63110
Italia-America Bocce Club
2210 Marconi Avenue
St. Louis, MO 63110