Arts & Culture » Culture

Battle of the balls


The petanque game is about to start, and Jeffrey Widen of Wyandotte is talking some smack.

"Throw it pretty far down there so Joe can’t shoot it. He can’t shoot long distances," Widen says to a petanque newbie about to face Joe Zajac of Rochester, president of the Michigan Petanque (pronounced pay-tonk) Club.

"We call that ‘petanque trash talking,’" says Widen, the group’s vice president. "Sometimes we like to word it up a bit."

At the group’s decidedly laid-back weekly gatherings at the VFW Park in Royal Oak, enthusiasts for this French version of the Italian game bocce (pronounced botch-ee) come from as far as Windsor to commune and compete. The trash talking is thick, but good-natured.

That said, Zajac’s mouth has sparked a different rivalry that’s escalated beyond their humble piste (that’s petanque for "court").

In a newspaper interview earlier this year, Zajac said the French sport requires more skill than its Italian cousin.

Not so, says Bryan Sanborn, who handles marketing for the nearly year-old Palazzo di Bocce, a multimillion-dollar monument to the sport just up the road from the Palace of Auburn Hills. Sanborn says that when Palazzo owner Anthony Battaglia heard Zajac’s appraisal of bocce, he was ready for a fight (a most civil one, of course).

Both games are played widely in Europe, with roots in the ancient bowling games brought there from Egypt. There are a few pockets of enthusiasm in the United States too — heavier in retirement areas like Florida. There’s even a (thankfully) small movement of naked petanque clubs — Google it, if you dare.

Bocce and petanque look and play like a mad mix of bowling, pool and croquet, but without the rented shoes, cues or mallets. There are, however, a few marked differences.

Petanque is played with heavy metal balls called boules that are about the size of an orange. The boules are lobbed or rolled on gravel courts called pistes. Points are earned by getting your team’s boules closest to a tiny, brightly colored ball called the cochon (French for "pig"). When rolled underhand, a boule can hit a rough patch or uneven spot and take off in a direction completely unintended. When tossed, or "shot," a boule can whack another player’s ball out of scoring range.

"Remember," petanque player Maude Hannss of Windsor says, "balls of steel, that’s the difference."

Bocce balls are larger, grapefruit-sized orbs made of resin. Americans are known to play bocce on their backyard lawns, but purists say the game is better played on a smooth surface that’s nearly 30 feet longer than a petanque piste. The Palazzo has 10 pristine courts of perfectly level cement topped with a thin rubber-like coating. Players roll the large balls at a smaller ball, called a pallino (Italian for "little ball"). The court is so smooth that a ball can easily roll from one end of the court to the other, putting it out of play.

"Ours is more of a finesse game," Sanborn says.

The first Battle of the Boules — in which the bocce and petanque enthusiasts try their hands at each other’s sports — was held in March, and ended with a victory and a year’s worth of bragging rights for the Palazzo guys. (They won handily, Sanborn says, quickly noting that while the bocce guys won at petanque, the petanque guys struck out at bocce. Zajac promises a rematch next year.)

The "bocce palace" is beautifully decorated with tile and wood finishing, lots of windows allowing for natural light, and trickling fountains. There’s an upscale Italian restaurant with quail and bruschetta on the menu, and a full bar. Patrons are asked to wear "proper casual attire." It’s the kind of place you could take a date, host an office party or hold a business meeting.

Bocce, though, is the main attraction. The game is catching on quickly — mostly fueled by word of mouth, Sanborn says. Weekend nights are especially busy, and players should make reservations. The Palazzo also offers league play, and the winter league had 70 teams with 280 players total.

Zajac’s petanque headquarters at VFW Park are less vast and fanciful, but it’s growing nonetheless. Zajac and Widen have been petanque missionaries, using word of mouth, the media and the Internet to spread the gospel of the sport. Last winter, a season when the club’s numbers historically would dwindle, Zajac secured a piste in a vacant greenhouse at Bordine Nursery in Rochester — now dubbed the Bordine Bouledome.

Zajac and Widen have taken the Michigan Petanque Club from a scant handful of enthusiasts to a 60-member group in just two years. They’ve also spawned a downriver spinoff, the Detroit Petanque Club. Widen heads that group, which just got approval for a piste in a Wyandotte park.

During the Royal Oak gatherings, passersby turn their heads in curiosity to scope out the alien game. Zajac sees those passersby as potential converts, and happily steps away from a game to explain the basics and hopefully reel them in.

The petanque and bocce devotees say one of the biggest lures to the sports is the accessibility; pretty much anybody can play. An 84-year-old could compete against a 13-year-old, and it would still be an even match, Zajac says.

Plus, the rules are quick to pick up, Sanborn says. Knowing Italian or French is not required. "Once you play for an hour or two, it sort of comes to you," he says.

The Palazzo has bocce pros circulating the courts to offer pointers or a quick lesson. And Zajac and Widen are more than patient with petanque newcomers, letting them dive right in with veterans.

"You’re never a rookie for too long at this game," Widen says.

The games also don’t require much equipment. A decent set of boules or bocce balls costs about $50, but the petanque club keeps plenty of spare sets on hand. And at the Palazzo, balls are included in court rental, so all you need are soft-soled shoes (leave the spiky-heeled Manolo Blahniks at home, please).

Widen concedes that petanque and bocce "are actually quite compatible," and if you enjoy one, you’ll probably like the other. Sanborn says he even sees some of the petanque club members at his facility practicing on rainy weekends.

Still, don’t expect the tried and true bocce or petanque folks to switch teams anytime soon. There’s still a rivalry here — albeit one steeped in kinship, friendships and cultural traditions — and Widen doesn’t expect it to go away anytime soon.

"I don’t know," Widen says, "maybe it’s all that hot Mediterranean blood."

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey is a freelance writer. Send comments to

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