Giovanni Marcantoni learned at an early age that getting together with his Italian American family in Baltimore's Little Italy meant playing bocce, an outdoor game that combines elements of horseshoes and duckpin bowling.
Little did Marcantoni, a Towson, Md., native, know that he would be instrumental in bringing bocce to the forefront, thanks to a lawn-game renaissance that has thousands of people hooked.
During the fall of 2009, Marcantoni, 31, founded his first league, Baltimore Bocce, in Federal Hill Park with 16 members. Six years later, Marcantoni has expanded bocce to five other markets across the nation and seen the numbers of players rise to more than 20,000, something he still can't wrap his head around.
"When we started back then, no one, including myself, thought it would be this big and grow the way it's grown," said Marcantoni, founder and CEO of Baltimore Social. "It's been hard, but we're always looking to continue changing and finding new ways to get the community involved. It's just been really exciting stuff, and we hope this is just the beginning."
There are a number of factors Marcantoni attributes to the success of the league and sport. Among them are the game's simplicity and the fact that people of all ages and skill levels can play and, with some practice, get pretty good at it.
A team made up of anywhere from four to 12 players, on courts about 10-feet wide by 60-feet long, tosses one small ball (pallino) that becomes a target. Then, each team attempts to get four larger, duckpin-sized balls (bocce) as close to the target as possible.
"We've always made sure that even if a change needed to be made, like something with a silly rule or something, to try and have a conversation about it," Marcantoni said. "We've changed over time to make it a better product and even more enjoyable experience for our participants."
On Oct. 3 and 4 at Greenwood Park Beer Garden in Brooklyn, N.Y., bocce's finest will compete in the first national championship. The event, dubbed Bocce Bowl I, will feature the top eight teams from each of the league's six cities.
Marcantoni acknowledged a formal national championship event had been on the league's docket for quite some time.
"It kind of took a little bit to get the logistics right, especially with people traveling and trying to get permits and that kind of stuff," Marcantoni said. "Our big struggle with bocce and a championship like this has always been trying to figure out the best place to do it.
"We wanted it where we could have more of a festival kind of thing. The Greenwood Park Beer Garden is the perfect place to do it, so we kind of just decided to do it there."
With the league's roots in Baltimore, Marcantoni's dream is to one day bring the national championship back home.
"Hopefully, in the very near future, we can do that and bring thousands of people to Baltimore for the Bocce Bowl," Marcantoni said.
If and when that comes to fruition, Marcantoni has already planned how he would like to structure the event.
"The idea is for it to be something more than just bocce," Marcantoni said. "I mean, that's a draw, but we also want it to be similar to some of these other festivals happening. The idea is that we want to make this big enough, so that maybe if we bring it to Baltimore, it has a really big following, and it's something that can help the economy."
Still, even with the buzz and excitement surrounding the inaugural Bocce Bowl and its future, the premise behind the league is something Marcantoni has not lost sight of.
"No one is coming to play bocce and rip each other's heads off or anything like that," Marcantoni said. "That's how we developed everything from the beginning. The culture has just been to play bocce, meet each other and have fun. To me, that spirit has spread to what we're trying to do."