The sounds of Louis Prima, Jerry Vale and Frank Sinatra filled the grounds of Richmond County Country Club on June 11, and the smell of fresh zeppoles permeated the air as more than 200 amateur bocce aficionados descended on the property’s grassy acres for Staten Island University Hospital’s annual fundraising classic. And as politicians loosened their ties and local business owners mingled, the timeless Italian game united an assortment of players.
“This fundraiser has been hosted for generations as a golf and tennis outing,” noted Lou Tobacco, associate executive director of government affairs for SIUH Northwell Health. “A few years ago, we decided to add the bocce element because if you’re not a golfer and you don’t play tennis you couldn’t be an active part of the event.”
Bocce was a game Tobacco had played in the past — “When I was an assemblyman in Albany, all of the Italian-American legislators would play during a Festa each year,” he noted. So he knew the sport would bring banter and camaraderie to SIUH’s fundraising task.
“You don’t need a certain skill set and you don’t need your own clubs or racquet,” Tobacco said. “Instead of traveling from hole to hole with just your foursome, you are mingling with all of the guests at the event.”
There was a small amount of pushback, Tobacco admits. Organizers were afraid bocce would not entice enough players or the addition of another sport would cannibalize the others. But not only did the bocce portion sell out during its inaugural year, it reinvigorated the whole event, adding record-breaking numbers of golf and tennis players to the time-honored benefit.
“I think it added an exciting element to the whole tournament,” Tobacco said.
Now in its fifth year, the event hosted 50 teams on 10 grass courts that were custom built by SIUH’s plant operations crew. Referees from the Staten Island Bocce Club officiated, donating their time and knowledge, and a text alert system was employed this year to alert teams of their turn.
“The flow was seamless, and as my grandmother would say, the food was ‘abbondanza,’” Tobacco laughed, detailing generous portions of cannoli and sfogliatella and bottomless glasses of Peroni and red wine. “In golf and tennis, the rules of play are a little more serious, you have to be quiet on the green. But bocce etiquette is to eat, drink and be merry. There was a lot of networking happening on those courts.”
And since the inception of SIUH’s bocce outing, the sport has seen a major uptick in popularity across the borough: Every Wednesday Angelina’s Ristorante in Tottenville hosts a bocce league and several other nonprofits have centered their own fundraisers around the game.
“Vinnie Malerba, owner of Angelina’s, one of our first supporters, saw the potential of the game and built his own courts,” noted Tobacco, who jokingly refers to himself as the modern-day father of the Staten Island bocce movement. “A few other South Shore restaurants have since done the same, and several nonprofits have picked up on the trend too. But imitation is the best form of flattery: We were the first on the Island to incorporate this into fundraising and I take a lot of pride in how big the movement has become.”
Tobacco, who chairs the bocce portion of SIUH’s event, works closely with John Demoleas, executive director of the SIUH Foundation, and Phil Mancuso, who chairs the entire outing. Together, the trio hopes to expand upon the hype that bocce has brought to their event.
“We now have a waiting list because the event has become so popular,” Tobacco concluded. “This is no longer that obligatory fundraiser that people partake in because they need to show support for their local hospital. This is now the event for the who’s who of Staten Island — even Cardinal Dolan came out a few years ago to throw out the first pallino. We took a chance and mixed it up and it did not fail us. Bocce has served as the perfect attraction for new donors and this fun event continues to earn wonderful support for our hospital each year.”