Arnoldi’s Café has been a staple of Italian culture on Santa Barbara’s Lower Eastside for more than 70 years. While Italian restaurants may be plentiful, Arnoldi’s has something that no other restaurant between Los Angeles and San Francisco has: bocce ball.
The bocce courts are as old as Arnoldi’s itself, and regularly used by some of the same Italians who have been playing there since the 1940s. Over the last decade, the courts have become home to several leagues of diehard bocce fans.
Stepping on to the back patio on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday night, unassuming diners might feel as though they have entered an exclusive club. Men in Hawaiian shirts, drinks and cigarettes in hand, huddle in groups and stare intently down the bocce court at the small yellow ball (called a pallino) waiting at the end. The object of bocce is simply for a team to land balls as close as possible to the pallino. The team that lands its balls closest to the pallino is able to score, and gets one point for every ball that lands closer than the nearest ball of the other team.
Since he was a child, Arnoldi’s co-owner David Peri has been frequenting the landmark restaurant at 600 Olive St. He described bocce’s roots as being linked to the common people of Italy.
“It’s essentially a peasant game, because it is very simple, and doesn’t require much investment,” he explained. “All you need are some balls and a space to play.”
Bocce is enjoyed throughout Italy, southern France, parts of the Balkans and other countries with large Italian immigrant populations. Bocce at Arnoldi’s is played differently than the traditional way. Rather than lobbing the balls into the air (too many windows were broken), players send the balls rolling down the court much like in bowling. Additionally, Arnoldi’s bocce features three-foot markers surrounding the pallino, to keep track of its movement.
Augie Ortiz has been playing bocce at Arnoldi’s for 18 years, and now fully maintains the courts. Ortiz, along with his son, is a proud member of one of Tuesday night’s advanced league teams. He said the different leagues have been playing for nine years, and have grown significantly in that time.
“It has been very prosperous,” he said. “We had so many people asking to play that we ended up creating a third league on Monday, for beginners.”
Joe Strickland, one of Martinez’s teammates, outlined the finesse required to play the game. He said imperfections in the court, the speed of the ball and how it is thrown all factor into one’s ability to gain points. While the teams do compete against each other, the main draw is the highly social atmosphere and sense of community created by the game.
Rick Marcellin, who has been playing for three years, spoke highly of the fun atmosphere and his love for the game.
“I have never been a regular anywhere in my life, but now I’m a regular here because I fell in love with bocce,” he said.
Aside from the fun and challenge of playing bocce every week, those who come out to play are taking part in preserving history. Peri helped purchase the restaurant nine years ago to save it from closing. He has gone to great lengths to restore the restaurant, and its bocce courts, to their original 1940s condition. Having the full cooperation of the Arnoldi family, Peri recovered original bits of furniture and fixed up the back patio, which had fallen into disuse.
The result is a familiar atmosphere that welcomes guests to come in, grab a drink, and test their skill at sending a bocce ball sailing down the court.