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The world is their crushed oyster shell

By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY

When it came time to infuse the family yard with some fun, Susie Roy quickly dismissed the local staple — a hot tub — and stole a page from Italian culture. Some $10,000 later, she and husband Denis had their own bocce court.

"It's low-maintenance, and our three kids just love it," says Susie Roy, who lives in Mill Valley, Calif., just outside San Francisco. "Besides, what other outdoor game can you play with a glass of wine in your hand?"

Similar to British lawn bowling and the French pétanque, Italy's bocce (pronounced bo-chay) involves rolling grapefruit-size balls as close as possible to a smaller white ball, or pallino. Touch it and that's a vaunted "kiss."

The USA has a few hundred public and private bocce courts, and even fields teams in international competitions. But this ancient game is rapidly moving beyond the cloistered walls of Italian-American social clubs.

While Northern California appears to be spearheading the backyard court trend, interest is on the rise nationwide.

"My Web site gets hits and questions from all over," says David Brewer, whose San Rafael, Calif., landscaping business has morphed into a company called Boccebrew. "People like the fact that bocce courts are cheaper and take up less room than pools or tennis courts. And they're social magnets."

In the past three years, Brewer has built 47 courts around the San Francisco Bay Area. Growth areas include corporate offices (he built two courts at Yahoo's Sunnyvale headquarters) and private homes. Prices push $13,000 for regulation 12-by-91-foot models. For the do-it-yourself crowd, Brewer offers step-by-step instructions for $250.

Crowds have gotten so big over at Campo di Bocce, a $2 million facility in Los Gatos, that general manager Joe Morelli suggests visitors consider building home courts and supplies a flier with guidelines. (The base is 4 inches of ground granite; the top is a blend of sand and crushed oyster shells.)

John and Andrea Ross of nearby Monte Sereno took Morelli up on it. John spent the better part of last year building his bocce court, in time for Andrea to practice for the Women's World Championship in Ossana, Italy. (Her quartet finished 10th of 16.)

"I think John lost 20 pounds building that court," Andrea jokes. "But now we have it for practice and parties." The Rosses recently raised $5,000 for a local hospital by offering dinner and bocce lessons at their house.

The game's inclusiveness helps explain the appeal.

"I've seen four generations out on a court, and there's no telling who the best player is. Try that with a basketball hoop," says Ken Dothee of US Bocce, an organizing body whose magazine of the same name has 50,000 subscribers.

Bryan Mero of San Ramon, Calif., didn't know how to pronounce bocce six years ago. Now he sings the pastime's praises through his site, where hits have risen from 150 a year to 300 a day. "I've had e-mails from guys in Minnesota who play inside barns and women in northern Arizona who like playing in the snow," he says.

Will Mero build his own court?

"I really want to," he says. "I'll have to get my wife on board, because it would mean getting rid of her garden."

Now that might be harder than kissing the pallino