10/03/2011 12:33 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2011

Bocce League Helps Black Jack Bar Craft Custom Space

WASHINGTON -- The slick new bocce court at recently opened Black Jack -- the upper-floor bar atop restaurateur Jeff Black's latest project, Pearl Dive Oyster Palace -- was surprisingly quiet Wednesday night last week. That, of course, was before the arrival of several DC Bocce League members, who before long were swilling beers, chucking bocce balls and emitting victorious squeals when balls were well-thrown.

The six-year-old league, started by a small core of 50 people, has gained remarkable but under-the-radar popularity since its inception. Next year, it anticipates 7,000 registrants over four seasons of play, mostly thanks to word-of-mouth advertising. Black, inspired by trendy bocce courts now popping up in bars in Brooklyn, enlisted the league to design Black Jack's court.

"They just took the ball and ran with it," Black told The Huffington Post. He gave the league free reign, letting them dictate everything from the size of the court's wooden barriers to the placement of white lines that mark areas of play. Even the guidelines, which are prominently displayed on a mounted placard, were set by DC Bocce officials.

The rules of bocce, an Italian ball sport, vary widely depending on who you ask. Some require a court to be 90 feet long, while others, like DC Bocce, are content with 60 or less. At any rate, league members say they aren't nit-picky. In the tradition of other District-area organized team sports, like kickball and softball, the DC Bocce League is a social club before it's a competitive one. The main differences between it and others: DC Bocce skews older -- the average player is 30, though ages span a wide range -- and absent is the jock-ish, beer-chugging mentality that sometimes accompanies other sports.

The vibe is one that's somewhat hipsterish and proudly geeky, which in turn has nurtured a sense of inclusivness that's arguably behind the league's exponential increase in membership. "What bocce does is it transcends the social groupings," said Rachael Preston, a member of DC Bocce's board of directors. "It's a place for people who don't have a thing." (The social aspect of the league has most certainly played a role in the number of weddings between couples that met at games. The current count is estimated at 10 wedded couples.)

The court at Black Jack will, come this winter, be part of DC Bocce's premier league aimed at more regular bocce players. In addition to it, there are eight divisions across the District, Maryland, Virginia, and most recently, Philadelphia. All teams play on a mix of indoor and outdoor courts. Unlike the one at Black Jack, most are collapse-able sets custom-designed by the league. Two permanent outdoor courts, the first open for public use in the District, were constructed in Capitol Hill's Garfield Park with DC Bocce funds and are maintained by the league.

For those with more competitive spirits, a league-wide championship is usually held in September. (Philly teams have yet to be incorporated.) All prize money awarded to top teams is donated to a charity of their choice.

For Black, the decision to install a bocce court was just as much a fun idea as it was practical. Early in the restaurant's development, prior to much-publicized skirmishes with community members about the noise Pearl Dive and Black Jack might bring to 14th Street NW, the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission shut down Black's initial idea to build an open-air deck in the space.

"At this point, I could have walked away from the deal," Black said. "I did the math, and the only way the math made sense was if I was using this space." Searching for a way to make the property stand out, he decided on a bocce court. The decor is straight out of Brooklyn -- a large steer's head is mounted on the wall, electric bulbs spell out the words "Black Jack," and a peanut gallery of re-purposed stadium chairs provides seating. The court itself is cordoned off with a waist-high chain fence and lined with green artificial turf.

The stylish playing surface is a pleasant change for league members used to playing in grubby bars and outside in often unpredictable weather conditions. For non-leaguers, too, there's a considerable draw: Play is free. Right now, waits for time on the court are short if there is one at all, but that will likely change as word gets out.

Black envisions both Black Jack and Pearl Dive meshing well with the trendy 14th Street corridor, a feeling mirrored by Pixie Windsor, owner of nearby Miss Pixie's Furnishings and Whatnot. "She came in the day we opened, and she said 'It feels like the restaurants always been here, and I just didn't know about it,'" Black recalled. "And I said, that's the best compliment I can get."

The DC Bocce League's fall season began last month, and registration ($50 a person) ends on Monday.

DC Bocce League Plays At Black Jack