November 12, 2016


THE BOCCE BOYS OF CORONA (James Boo, JULY 1, 2013, Narratively)

"When you go through the initial change, like when it's actually starting, that's the worst part," notes Vinnie Barbaccia, co-owner of the Lemon Ice King, where white and Hispanic youths now work the night shift together without missing a scoop. When his parents decided to sell their home, he realized that the Corona he grew up in might become an entirely different place. Like Jack Eichenbaum, though, he's developed a positive outlook about the pace of change and the new faces of the neighborhood.

"I've been here twenty-one years now. We've seen the stabilization of it," he says with confidence. "What saved this neighborhood is hard-working people. It sounds corny, but they want for their kids what our parents wanted for our kids, so they open small businesses, or they work for whatever jobs they work. They bought their homes, which is the key to everything, as far as keeping it solid."

The ice stand, one of New York's most congenial institutions, is fueled by this pride in neighborhood over race. Since Vinnie and his partner Michael took over the Lemon Ice King--in the same year that Manuel Mayi was killed just down the street--his business has only drawn a more diverse following from all over New York. Alongside Italian classics like lemon and pistachio are newer, more tropical flavors, a token of goodwill and good business for Hispanic customers. It's not unheard of for Vinnie's coconut ice to sell out before the day is over.

Down the street, Franco's Meat and Deli underscores a shift towards reconciliation, if not outright recognition of the neighborhood's more ominous moments. On one of the days that Nicky is threatening to quit a bocce game at the park, butcher Franco Mattei is hand-carving pork into thin slices and stacking them for delivery to Tortilleria Nixtamal, a popular Mexican restaurant and tortilla distributor just around the corner.

Pounding each slice with a mallet before adding it to the stack, Franco declares matter-of-factly, "They don't do veal like we used do. They don't do fresh Italian sausage. They don't do none of those things that we grew up with, so I have to sell Spanish-style products in order to survive, you know?"

Franco, who moved to Queens from a town just outside of Rome when he was eleven years old, took over the butcher shop at 104th Street in 1974. Even then, in the midst of Corona's demographic turnover, business was booming. Today, he composes e-mail using the handle "lastbutcher." The deal to supply Nixtamal with custom-carved pork, beef and lamb for taco fillings is one of the reasons his meat shop hasn't gone out of business.

Having sunk his life's savings into buying the small building that houses his shop on the first floor, Franco still works six twelve-hour days a week, tacking eight more hours onto Sundays to improve his margins.

In higher-income neighborhoods, sustainably sourced meat shops are supported by a rising consumer interest in the craft of butchery. In Corona, where no one is clamoring for grass-fed beef or free-range chicken thighs, Franco buys from the big processors. He applies considerable skill to pick out what he calls "cancers" in the meat, cutting out mysterious knots and discolored spots that untrained hands would never catch. Franco's lifetime of experience is a substitute for the higher-cost supply chain that most of his customers can't afford. His prices are lower than Key Food, and his take-out menu--which includes sandwiches specials named "Robo-Cop" and "Spanish Steak"--reads like a time capsule.

"Mi Amor!" calls a young Honduran woman, beaming at Franco and asking him questions about the meat case. The butcher chats with the woman in fluent Spanish, verbally diagramming cuts of beef and alternately giving instructions to Arturo, his assistant. He jokes that he's being phased out, and wants the customer--a former restaurant owner from Miami--to take over his shop.

"It's time for the old lions to retire and have the young lions come in," he comments with a chuckle. "There's no moral good or bad. It's a fact of life. You gotta learn to to adjust it, accept it, embrace it, go with it, play with it, change it."

A good game of bocce plays out like a conversation. Each team receives four balls (typically green or red) that barely fit into a grown man's palm. At the start of each round, one team rolls the pallino, a smaller white ball, to the opposite end of the court, a rectangular strip that's a few yards wide and over thirty yards long.

The pallino becomes a target. The object of each round is to land your team's four balls closer to the pallino than the opponents'. As soon as one of your balls is closest, your opponents get to throw until they reclaim the lead or run out of balls. When all throws have been made, you receive one point for the closest ball, two points if you also have the next closest, and so forth. A new round begins; the game ends when a team scores twelve points.

The mechanics are call-and-response. Scoring points requires careful placement, but "shooting" out your opponents' points at the right moment is essential to holding ground. Sharp players can either shoot out a ball with pinpoint accuracy or roll with enough finesse to brush the pallino aside, moving the court's center of gravity for a crafty win. The best performers draw on an intimate knowledge of the court, relying on keen awareness of players' strengths and weaknesses to get through each match.

"Actually, it's not really an Italian game," says John Pistone, a former city bocce champion who visits the park in Corona every now and then. Recounting opponents he's challenged throughout the state, John alludes to the French game boules (which plays like a cousin to bocce), and calls out other European and South American immigrants who play these games with just as much fervor as the Italians who popularized the game in New York.

The global heart of the game is surely on display in Corona, which Pistone is quick to call out. "It's better known as Spaghetti Park. Now we gotta change to 'Rice Park,' or 'Plantains,' you know?"

Each year, when the first balmy days hit New York, players from all neighborhoods of Queens step into the triangle for bocce marathons. In its heyday, the court would run games until four a.m. The park's curfew has receded, but on summer nights the balls keep rolling until the lights shut off, somewhere close to midnight.

Like the shifting pattern of balls on a bocce court, players at the park circle each other in a scrimmage that's more communal than oppositional. Spectators (which includes any player who isn't about to throw) often shout, "Punto!" ("point!") or "Pallino!" calling out the optimal move for every situation. When a shot is missed, rejoinders of "Mañana, mañana" float across the park, and everyone adopts the same, exaggerated wag of the finger when signaling that a shot is no good. Ices from the Lemon Ice King can be spotted from any corner, and Styrofoam containers of "comida tipica" are as commonplace as a slice from Corona Pizza.

"We get along great," says Pistone, greeting familiar players with a friendly, "como está?" as he observes the nighttime matches. "They don't speak English very well, a lot of them, as you can see. So we speak Italian, English, Spanish, and God knows what others. And maybe with our hands, too."

Posted by at November 12, 2016 5:25 AM