Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The Godfather of Bocce

Restaurant owner introduced customers to his other passion

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A family man. A restaurant owner.

These are the two titles Joe Grande, owner of the local Italian eatery Mona Lisa, likes to go by.

However, when talking with him at his Corydon Avenue restaurant he opened 30 years ago, another name seems fitting.

The Godfather of Bocce.

"I've never thought of it that way," said Grande in between a fit of laughter. "It's just a game I love to play."

Grande is at the midway point of his 18th season as organizer of the Mona Lisa bocce league, which runs Monday to Thursday evenings on two courts outside his eatery.

Bocce is similar to lawn bowling, with two teams of four members each facing off on a grass court. The goal is to bowl your team's four balls closer to the marker ball, the pallino, than the other team's to score points.

How did the long-standing league come to be?

By accident, according to Grande.

"It was an afternoon 17 years ago, we had finished lunch with my dad, and we decided to play bocce on the boulevard," he said. "We were having such a good time, and some customers walked by and asked what we were doing. They then asked us if they could play after dinner."

Joe agreed.

The enjoyment from the evening match proved enough to begin a league the following year.

It began with four teams.

"Then it grew to six, then eight," said Grande. "The next thing you knew we had as many as 24 teams playing. That's a lot of people."

Grande credits his father, Angelo, as the driving force behind the success of the league. His father has been teaching players since they first started, a passion Grande said is part of his family's heritage.

"I think Italians have a certain idea of life for everything we do," said Grande.

"When we eat, we eat with passion. When we play bocce, we play with passion. When we get our heads around something, we like to get the most out of it we can."

Joe was so moved by his father's presence that he made a call to Mayor Sam Katz, asking for a personal favour.

The end result was a street sign reading "Angelo Grande Bocce Way," now the name of the road separating the two courts.

"My father is a big part of this league. He's almost 80, and rarely does he have an off day. It's because of him we have this league today."

For Grande, his league provides an outlet for the community.

"I think it's the need for people," he said. "I think people need to be around other people who take them away from their everyday lives. Winnipeg people work very hard. These are people who have businesses, have families and want to enlighten their lives. That's why they play."

Bocce has become a big part of his restaurant's identity, something Grande said is as important as the food he puts on the tables.

"I can't stop it. People keep asking to play so I have to keep going," he said. "It would be like people wanting to eat here and me telling them they can't. It takes a lot of effort to produce a league and keep it organized, but I'm thankful for the people I have around me to help.

And from the sounds of it, there's no plan to slow down.

"As long as this restaurant is here, we'll keep playing bocce," said Grande.

"And if I don't have my restaurant, then I might have a league somewhere else."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 25, 2012 j5

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