"Oh! Mie Papa" Bocce Ball Tournament 1981 - 2005
This story is about a family tradition that goes back to the toss of a pallina in the old Italian neighborhood on Payne Avenue on the East side of St. Paul. The pallina is a small white ball that sets the location of where you must “bowl” your bocce balls to, as close as possible, to gain points. The word for kiss in Italian is “bacio”, so the literal translation is “kiss ball”. During the old Payne Avenue days, the game was enjoyed only by men. (Thank goodness that part of the tradition evolved!)
In the late 1970’s bocce ball tournaments gained popularity and were featured alongside special events like the Winter Carnival, the Payne Avenue Harvest Festival and the Rudy Perpich Invitational Tournament held at Yarusso’s, also on Payne Avenue. Grandpa Lonetti, who had a shoe repair business (more on that story in a future post), sponsored both a men’s and women’s team made up of his sons and daughter-n-laws. Sponsorship included a “Lonetti Shoe Repair” jacket or shirt for the players, who were successful in getting the Lonetti name on the trophy several times through out the years. Grandpa was always a big promotor of the game (and his family)!
Continued family interest in the game led to the creation of the “Oh! Mie Papa” Annual Father’s Day Tournament. This event focused on the same goals as every other party—family, friends, good food and good wine— with the addition of the witty word-play that fueled a friendly but serious competition. With a regulation style bocce ball court in their backyard, Grandpa Lonetti’s son #3, Gary, and his wife Claudia (the parents of 3LS) hosted this annual well-anticipated event on Price Avenue in Maplewood.
The main rivalry was between the Lonetti men and the Barilla men, two Italian/German families joined by the marriages of two sisters. Grandma Eva’s sister, Betty, admired Grandpa so much she married an Italian as well, our beloved Uncle Fred, and the families were united. Uncle Fred Barilla is Godfather to Gary, so it made sense to hold the event on Father’s Day to celebrate both his father and his Godfather.
Start time was signified by the arrival of the Barilla family at 11 am walking up the driveway waving the Italian flag. But the real party did not start until Grandpa arrived in one of his colorful outfits that included various combinations of plaid shorts, Hawaiian shirts, striped tube socks and patent leather shoes. (We remember he acquired these pale yellow and baby blue patent leather shoes after someone left them for repair at the shop and decided they weren’t worth coming back for. Grandpa must have thought, waste not, want not.)
During these competitive matches, strategies were developed, rivalries sorted out, and ongoing cheering and yelling took place with the most common question: “Who’s closer?” . Points were challenged by a rotating measuring tape crafted by neighbor and creative genius Reggie Meissner. This one of a kind gadget was a tape measure mounted to a 3 pronged metal device that fit snuggly over the pallina. If you were a kid while this ceremonial process took place, you better “Stay off the court!”. (We did mention “spirited” competition and who’s closest will win the game.) We played tournament style double elimination, starting with 8 and than later 12 teams. Competitors returned for the challenge each year with intimidating names like “The Marathoners”, “Macho Men”, “Hot Dagos”, “Friends and Neighbors”, “Texas Rangers” and “The Other Women”. That many teams were needed since all of Grandpa’s sisters joined, the Barilla’s, Grandma’s brother Ted Knops and wife Ev, Claudia’s family and a host of friends and neighbors.
Less competitive was the “Small Fry” team game, mentored by Uncle Fred. All the little ones had their turn to “shoot” and learn to play under his guidance. This was their chance to go on the court without getting yelled at. :) Talk about cute!!! The team numbers increased every year!
An important part of every Lonetti event is the food! We can assure you everyone was well fed through out the day starting with coffee, juice and doughnuts at 11 am, ongoing afternoon snacks and the big potluck dinner at 5 pm! Families contributed their favorite dish. Guests eagerly anticipated the official invitation to get in line at the serving tables lined up and down the middle of the driveway with meatballs, sausage, pepperoni, mostaccioli, stuffed shells, lasagnas, red and green (spinach), meat and cheese trays, Italian salads and bread. Cookies and ice cream cones were served for dessert.
The tradition continued every Father’s Day for 25 years. With a growing attendance list and over 100 friends and family members filling the back yard, kitchen and one small bathroom, there simply wasn’t enough room to continue the event with the same high celebratory expectations we’d grown accustomed to.
The now seldom-used court has begun to grow moss. The hand-made wooden scoreboard hangs unpegged. But the family continues to grow, which means that the next great tradition is just around the corner.