On any given Tuesday or Thursday evening, as Mineola residents make their way to the village pool or Wilson Park playground, they can find Joe Mariani and a group of guys playing bocce on the sand court that sits adjacent to the children’s jungle gym.
They’ve been doing so for almost a decade, Mariani said.
Mariani, a village resident for 45 years, grew up playing paddle ball in Queens. When he moved out to Mineola, he continued playing the game with his friend, the late Tony Nocito.
Mariani said he, Nocito and a group of guys played paddle ball for about 20 years. As they aged, they started to outgrow the sport.
“Unfortunately, when you get older everything starts to hurt,” Mariani said. “Sooner or later a guy had this with the leg, and the other one had this with the arm, and another guy with heart problems…”
Still longing to spend time outdoors with friends, Mariani and Nocito searched for a less physically draining game.
Their Italian heritage led them to bocce, he said.
About ten years after that initial conversation between two friends, one who’s since passed, and the twice-weekly bocce games in Wilson Park are thriving.
“We started playing and before you know it we had six guys, and seven guys, and eight guys,” Mariani said. “We had to expand it to another night.”
Tuesdays and Thursdays from about 4:30 p.m. into the evening, a diverse crowd gathers to play – and watch – as the bocce games commence, Mariani said.
Although the game, which Mariani likened to horseshoe shuffleboard, has Italian roots, the Wilson Park crowd varies from Irish to Portuguese to Greek, Mariani said.
The players also range in age, from guys in their 30s to some in their 80s, and come from different areas including Williston Park, New Hyde Park and Albertson, he said.
The group is always looking to expand, and all are welcome to come out and join in the games, Mariani said.
The game begins with one player tossing a small ball, or pallino, onto the court. As the game continues, players bowl other balls trying to get them close to the pallino.
“It gets to the point where you have to take a ruler and measure which ball is closer to see who gets the point,” Mariani said. “Sometimes, it gets to a minute eighth of an inch.”
The games may get close, but the Mineola players are mainly there for fun, Mariani said.
Sometimes kids will cross over the court, due to it’s proximity to the playground, Mariani said. Rather than get mad, Mariani said he takes the time to try and explain the game to them.
“We’re loose, we don’t go crazy,” Mariani said. “It’s a game.”
For Mariani, the game is about enjoying the evening with friends – and appreciating the resources available to play it on.
When Mariani and Nocito first sought out to play bocce, the court was a wreck, Mariani said.
A lot of times it had holes from kids who thought it was a sandbox, he said.
The men cleaned it up, and have been using it to play since.
Soon, the bench by the court will be dedicated with a plaque to Nocito, a Mineola native who died two years ago. Mariani said he expects there to be a ceremony unveiling the plaque in September.
Growing up, Mariani said he didn’t have courts to play games on. He and his friends would play in empty lots, grassy fields or the street.
He’d often spend hours looking for balls lost in fields of weeds, he said.
Regardless, he and his friends still went out and played all summer long, he said.
“I grew up in a different time, we were out all the time,” Mariani said.
It’s that child-like spirit Mariani is trying to keep going with the bocce games in the park.
“[We’re] just getting together and having a good time – a good evening and a lot of fun,” Mariani said. “Sometimes we order out, and get a pizza and enjoy a pizza and a soda … all we ask from everybody is to respect each other, it’s only a game.”