PRINCETON — The flags of Italy and the United States flew last Wednesday evening at the site of a sporting competition unlike any other in the region.
A sport tracing its history back thousands of years was underway in the backyard of a Princeton businessman.
Every Wednesday evening in the warm-weather months for the past five years, Ralph Modena has invited some of his friends and neighbors to toss balls down a custom-made court in a bocce tournament.
“It’s not life or death, but it’s fun to be competitive,” Modena said. “The nice thing about it is that you can play it until you’re 80 (or more) — as long as you can bend over … .”
Bocce combines elements found in lawn bowling, curling and croquet. It can be played with two, four or more players stationed on either end of a long rectangular court.
The game is broken up into a series of “frames” that begin with tossing a small target ball, the pellino, down the court. Each side in the competition then tries to roll their team’s balls as close as possible to the pellino.
During a frame, only the side with the closest ball gets points.
In addition to requiring a delicate touch to get the ball to stop at a desirable location, bocce also involves strategy since one player’s ball may be used to knock the other team’s ball away from the target, or to send the target to another resting place.
Bocce spread widely from Italy during the Roman Empire, deriving its modern name from an Italian word with a Latin root. Modena, who is of Italian heritage, embraced the ancient sport years ago.
The first known description of the game was found in a painting on the wall of an Egyptian tomb, dated at 5200 BC, according to the website of the World Bocce League.
Modena has made numerous visits to Italy, the adopted homeland of bocce, and decided to introduce the sport to his friends.
“I’ve had this idea for probably 15, 20 years,” he said.
“I’d seen (bocce), and just heard about it. I knew people in Clarksburg or Fairmont who had a court.”
He’d also visited bocce tournaments that have been going for years on “northern courts in New Jersey and New York,” he said. “These Italians, they’re sitting there talking trash to each other. … They’ll just sit there and have a big time.”
But he didn’t get immediate buy-in about constructing a court in his backyard.
Modena said, “I talked to the neighbors about putting one in and (they said), ‘You’re crazy.’”
However, he said, “It got over well. We had a good first year.”
In the first season of the Princeton competition, spectators and competitors sat in lawn chairs scattered on the hillside above the court. By year two, Modena had a large pavilion built. It soon included an outdoor pizza oven.
“The Amish came in and built the pavilion in one day. It was just unbelievable,” Modena said.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Modena said, the competition continued under scaled-back conditions. “We had a real small group that was really careful (to prevent COVID exposure),” Modena said.
A regular weekly competitor, Lucky Goforth, said he began attending because “I wanted to see what Ralph had done. … When Ralph first started this, I thought, ‘This was crazy. What is he doing down here?’
“And the next thing you know, there are like 30 people coming every week. This has become this huge social thing. It’s just a wonderful thing he’s done, him and his wife, (to) share with so many people.”
Fellow attendee Rob Pawlowski said that the best thing about the bocce nights is “the fellowship, really. People come here, and people you haven’t seen in a long time, and you only see them here. The older you get, you appreciate that more.”
Modena said that the group is “a good mix of Bluefield and Princeton people.” A regular attendee told him recently, “I don’t know of too many things being done in this area that have that kind of mix.”
With the turnout increasing for the weekly gathering, Modena had a second court built earlier this year. That rectangle is 90 feet long, he said with pride.
“We use a hard-tru surface, which is what is used on tennis courts now,” Modena said.
“I’ve seen it (played) on grass. On indoor courts it’s on a rubber (surface) like vinyl floors.”
“I hate playing on a court where, you make a perfect roll and all of a sudden it just veers to the right because it’s not level, or there’s a seam there or something. So I just said, ‘Nah, if I’m going to do this, we’re going to do it right.’
“I guarantee this is one of the better surfaces you’re ever going to see outdoors.”
“This is a lot of work. I (work) eight to 10 hours a week just keeping the court up,” he said. That includes dragging a heavy cylindrical roller repeatedly up and down the playing surface to flatten dents and pock marks from the balls’ impact.
His attention to detail includes trying to remove small piles of left-behind gravel grains, known as “fines,” that could deflect the path of a ball.
In addition to wearing the hats of maintenance man and tournament director, Modena also played the part of gracious host. In an Italian household, that includes arranging for food and drink.
On Wednesday afternoon, a few volunteers whipped up made-from-scratch pizzas in the Modenas’ kitchen, for Pawlowski to cook in the outdoor oven. Soon, a dozen plates of desserts arrived in the hands of Modena’s guests.
“All these people are very unselfish,” Modena said. “They bring food. I don’t make it mandatory, but if they want to, they can bring side dishes and desserts.”
“It’s a community. We all have a good time,” Modena said. “We’ve never had a fight.”
Goforth, asked if the local bocce competitors take the sport seriously, said, “Some do. Most don’t. I mean, some people are very serious, and good at it, and they play every week. and I play twice a year.”
Modena estimated the turnout was, “I’d say, an average of 30 to 34 per night.” On Wednesday, the crowd was around 45, including spectators.
“I want to get up to 50,” he said.
“I’d like to get 25 serious people over here who’ll play … If somebody wants to come play, just call me.”
Modena’s phone number is 304-716-6164.
He said he reserves the right to evaluate if an occasional bocce guest might be showing up “for the wrong reason.”
“I do try to vet them a little bit,” he said.
“Besides the pizza, I put out some really good Italian wine, and don’t charge anything for it — right now. That might have to change. (But) I don’t want someone coming just to drink.”
Modena plans to wrap up this bocce season with “the championships” on October 9. He said competition will stretch “all day and into the night.”
As the grand prize, he said, “We’ve got the gaudiest belt in the world … like the WWF. Oh, it’s the gaudiest belt. Gina Preservati’s dad made (it).”
Goforth said about Modena’s bocce evenings, “You would have to go (across) many, many states to find anything like this. The quality of the courts, the beautiful setting, the kitchen.
“This is like a ‘Greenbrier kind of place.’ I mean, this is unbelievable, what he’s got here.”
In between tossing toppings onto pizzas and serving as a judge for dozens of frames of bocce, Princeton volunteer Pat Johnson said, “I absolutely love what Ralph has done here to bring people together.”