Dinner With Champions

Post by 
Andy Zimmerman
bocce player executes perfect shot

Last night’s dinner was perfect.

The food was damn good - near perfect, even - but food doesn’t inspire me to write. Company does. Bocce does. On Friday, July 24th, I showed up to a dinner hosted by my bocce mentor and sometimes coach, Lio Gianotti.

The dinner was at his father, Pietro’s house. The guest list was short: Pietro, Lio, myself, Team USA All-Stars Jose Botto and Jason Wisniewski, and Jason’s girlfriend, Megan. While Megan is not a professional bocce player, she was fully prepared, as are all of our significant others, to spend the evening diving deep into bocce. While Jason is almost always the best bocce player on nearly any court in America, he was shockingly the 3rd best player at the table, behind Jose and Lio. I was happy to be the 4th until I remembered that Lio’s long-in-the-tooth dad might still mop the floor with me, but either way, it was clear that you could fit a full-sized bocce court between my name and Jason’s on any official rankings list. Jose is definitively the best player in the country, and Lio is in that Top 5 tier just behind him. Lio also just came off coaching the USA women’s team at the Pan-American Women’s Championship, hosted at our very own home courts at the Highwood Bocce Club in Highwood, IL. I was an official referee there, which feels like an accomplishment, until you’re taking a seat at this table.

selfie at Italian dinner
Grappa-inspired selfie

And this table was charming and predictable, adorned in a red checkered tablecloth in Pietro’s basement, while Lio clinked and clanked pots and pans in a frenzy of “Old World” cooking. I was told, “we don’t use the kitchen upstairs when there are guests.”. The first dish of gigante spinach and cheese ravioli swimming in red sauce barreled into our sight-lines in a disposable foil baking dish large enough to feed an American Bocce league. As an aspiring food snob I asked about the preparation of the ravioli. “Costco” was the secret ingredient I couldn’t quite put my finger on. No, actually, it was the family-recipe sauce (never gravy, while in the Midwest) that set the dish apart. So good that Lio filled 22 extra mason jars for future use. So on brand.

Somewhere between the sea of madinad and some green beans that were definitely not meant to be “eaten with pasta” (whoops!) , I learned of Jose’s upbringing on a farm in Argentina. There was a bocce club his family regularly played at not far from the grounds. He milked cows. He rode a horse to school. He played bocce. Over the years his passion for bocce grew and his game improved exponentially. In 2001, while in his 20’s, he was recruited by USBF (United States Bocce Federation) President, Danny Pasaglia to come play in the United States. Danny brought Jose to Chicago and employed him with the hopes of one day representing the USA in international bocce tournaments.

Jose’s early days in the United States consisted of delivering liquor to the basement of Highwood Bocce Club and training there any chance he could. His success in the states was practically immediate. I did not request a resume from any of these players but even if I did, they probably couldn’t list all the trophies, medals and cash prizes they’ve earned winning and placing in tournaments over the years.

In 2006 Jose moved to Detroit and began playing at Palazzo di Bocce where he met Jason and formed a lifelong friendship and bocce partnership. Their bond was obvious and made me think of who I wanted to share similar stories with if and when I ever reach bocce’s highest level. Just finishing up my plate of green beans, the second course was heading out of the kitchen. Breaded chicken breasts with sides of roasted potatoes, and of course, bread. The flavor packed into this perfectly fried chicken was surprising. One bite and I complimented “this is incredible! What do you call this?” Lio looked at me inquisitively and said “breaded chicken breast?” It’s that level of overthinking that has me wondering if I’ll ever taste their level of championship success.

We continued talking about their experiences rolling around the globe and just like my third helping of bread to olive oil, I soaked it up. There was a story of the time they played in Argentina and were forced to sleep 4 on top of each other in a 15’x15’ room without hot water. They finished 4th. There was a story of the time in Brazil where the accommodations were perfetto but the bocce club was an hour and a half away. That meant the bus left at 7:00 a.m. and returned at 1:00 a.m. One of those days, their first game wasn’t until 4pm so they anted up for a pricy cab ride to avoid sitting idly around the club for 9 hours. They finished 3rd.

And then this: the time Lio traveled to Jose’s home courts at Palazzo di Bocce for a singles Punto Raffa Volo tournament called “THE ONE”. Jose, who often favors international tournaments at this stage of his career, was in Italy for the World Cup of Bocce on that same weekend.  So of course, Lio won the tournament and was awarded a glorious tan jacket with “THE ONE” emblazoned on the left breast. That was the only “THE ONE” tournament and Lio will forever be the one winner.

Shortly after this great story of envy, friendship, and competitiveness, Lio disappeared upstairs. All of a sudden we hear the thud of a man missing a step and sliding down a stair or two. In Lio’s excitement, he slid to his back down the short basement staircase. Unharmed, but beholden to that much more of a grand entrance, Lio stood up donning the tan jacket! Everyone bursted into laughter. Well, everyone except for Jose. Just like Michael Jordan watching clips of his old rivals in The Last Dance, you could see the fire that makes Jose great in his stoicism. He traveled to the motherland to finish 2nd in the World Cup that year. But Lio has the jacket.

champion bocce player rolling ball
Lio seated, Jose playing

By this time a box of Italian pastries, ponchinos, homemade grappa, and Pietro’s secret family recipe limoncello were lifting our spirits high enough to match the riveting conversation. I talked a lot about the recent surge in bocce interest happening nationally and especially locally, here in Chicago with the American Bocce Company. Surprisingly, the national competition level and cash prize pools have suffered during this spike in interest and bocce pros like Jose rarely compete here in the states. So it was my turn to offer something. My enthusiasm and reports of modern bocce advances excited them. They encouraged me to continue my ambassadorial work for the game and offered their support and help when reasonable. Their dedication to the game is unwavering and there was an authenticity to the way they welcomed my passion. The dinner proved my instinct that we are closer than we think in bringing these worlds together. Creating unity across clubs, organizations, variations, skill levels, and enthusiasts across the across the world is undoubtedly a daunting step, but it is the next step. Thankfully, nothing brings people together like a home cooked Italian meal.

The best part? We played against each other the next day.











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