Under the Influence of Italy

Explore Daphne’s Italian Heritage and celebrate with an alfresco party — complete with a game of Bocce, Italian picnic fare and cocktails.

Shot on location at W.O. Lott Park. Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau

Clack, thud, laughter. The sounds carry from the bright green courts, making their way up to the parking lot and across the park. One team’s bocce ball knocks away the other’s and thunks off the side of the wooden court. A friendly ruckus unleashes as the underdog team gains the lead. Spectators sit casually in lawn chairs and stand in chatty clusters alongside the courts. The ground is still wet from yesterday’s spring rain and gray clouds linger above, but this group is not deterred. “When the court is wet like this it gets interesting because the balls roll faster,” explains a friendly gentleman in Alabama regalia. Homemade goodies line the picnic tables. This scene unfolds every Wednesday and Thursday in Daphne’s W.O. Lott Park, where a group of mostly retirees gather to catch up on each other’s lives and play a few games of bocce ball. When asked about the history of the group everyone says the same name: Alfred “Al” Gaurisco.

Shared Roots

While variations of bocce are one of the oldest – if not the oldest – pastimes in human history, the game as we know it today is believed to stem from the Roman Empire. Records show Roman soldiers played a form of bocce in 264 B.C. during the war against Carthage. Bocce became so popular in Italy that in 1576 the Republic of Venice publicly condemned it as a distraction from work and military obligations. Players were fined and even imprisoned. The Catholic church banned clergymen from playing, declaring it akin to gambling. 

After a decline, its popularity reignited in the mid-1800s when famed general Giuseppe Garibaldi, unifier of the nation of Italy, encouraged citizens to embrace bocce as a distinctly Italian game and declared it a national sport. Today, it is the second most popular sport in the country, bested only by soccer.

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At first, it seems out of place that an Italian game would be played in Daphne, Alabama. However, Daphne, like bocce, has an Italian lineage. Businesses such as Allegri Farm Market are owned by descendants of Italian families who settled in Daphne in the 1800s, and Manci’s Antique Club was established by one of these families. Al Guarisco, Daphne’s 93-year-old bocce organizer and historian, is a part of this legacy. 

The bocce courts at Olde Towne Daphne’s W.O. Lott Park commemorate the Italian heritage of this city by the Bay. the founding families who settled the area in the 1800s brought their farming techniques, their language, culture and the game of bocce. It is a national sport in Italy and their second most popular, even today.  

Italian immigrants photographed on their bocce court in Southeast Alabama, circa 1905. Courtesy “Gli Italiani Negli Stati Uniti d’America”

Life in the Colony

In 1888, Alessandro Mastro-Valerio purchased a tract of government land in what is now the Belforest community in Daphne. He saw the potential for agricultural development in the region and reached out to Italian families living in northern states by placing ads in Italian newspapers and newsletters, encouraging them to buy land to farm. Many of the respondents were coal miners living in Illinois and Michigan who had arrived originally from Central and Northern Italy.  Easily lured away from the conditions of the mines, these individuals purchased 10 to 40 acres of land in what is now Daphne for $1.50 – $6 an acre, around $50 – $200 in today’s money.

The colonists retained their Italian culture, including their Catholic faith. In 1895, The Church of the Assumption, now Christ the King, was built for the colonists. Father Angelo Chiariglione, a Scalbrini missionary from Torino, Italy, was the first pastor. And, in an act of goodwill, the Queen of Italy, Margherita of Savoy, sent a gift of vestments: an illuminated missal, a chalice, candlesticks and other articles. 

Life in early Daphne was not without its struggles, including an attempt at growing Italian grapes that failed when a frost set in. Then there was the overall challenge of learning to farm the land. There were several lean years at the start of the colony, and entire families would often work together in the fields.

However, by most accounts, Daphne evolved into a pleasant place to live, a much-needed reprieve from the coal mines and cold winters of the North. “Immigrants in Industry,” written in 1911, described life in the colony:

“The houses are neat structures comfortably furnished. The house lot is generally enclosed with a picket fence. In front of several of the houses, flower beds are seen, and roses have frequently been trained up the posts of the front verandas. The Italians in this community seem particularly fond of flowers which fall to the care of the women. A touch of beauty and homelikeness is given by the row of potted generally found on the windowsill in the kitchen. They raise practically all the food that they use. The gardens supply the vegetables, the cows furnish milk, the grapes are made into wine, chickens are numerous on their farms and what few necessaries cannot be provided from their own acres are purchased from one of the two Italian stores in the village.”

The Historian

Vittorio Emmanuel Lazzari, Al Guarisco’s grandfather, arrived in Daphne in 1896 by way of Coal City, Illinois. He was a coal miner seeking a better life for his family. He and wife Teresa had 10 children, including third born Mary Elizabeth Lazzari, who would become Al Guarisco’s grandmother. Mary Elizabeth married Agostino Guarisco, and they also had 10 children.  Al was the youngest. 

Guarisco describes his father as a hardworking man who did whatever he could to provide for his family. He arrived in Daphne in 1905 from Michigan and was hired by Cipriano Allegri to build a sawmill and cotton gin. He was also a talented woodworker, crafting fine furniture and making cabinets. Eventually, he purchased a sawmill from the Manci family and operated it as well.

His mother, Mary Elizabeth, always had a garden and prioritized serving fresh, healthy food to her large family. “My mom was an excellent cook. She made pasta, gnocchi and whatever was available in the garden such as eggplant, Swiss chard, potatoes and kale.” 

His oldest siblings, Mary and Theresa, spoke only Italian until they attended school. However, Guarisco says, “By the time I came around, we were fully Anglicized. I can understand a lot of Italian, and when I went to Italy, I got by. But I grew up speaking English.” 

Around town, Guarisco is considered a historian on the Italian colony and has shared his extensive knowledge with the Daphne Historical Museum. He reflects on the changes that have happened: the county seat changing to Bay Minette, the closing of the Normal School and the influx of new people to the area. “Even with all the changes,” he says, “I love Daphne. I grew up here. It’s my home.” 

Chesley Allegri shares a similar pride when she discusses her family farm. Her father, Vincent Allegri, the great-grandson of Cipriano Allegri, owns the Allegri Farm Market and operates their 40-acre farm in Daphne. In a time when farmers can make more money selling their land to developers, Vincent refuses to sell. “This is our family’s land, and he is really proud of it. Farming is in his blood,” she says.

Left to Right Omar Mulla tosses his bocce ball as opponent Olivia Autry looks on. Veronica Ginn enjoys an Americano. Chesley Allegri (left) relaxes with Alexa Reynolds (right) while enjoying Italian refreshments.

Back at the bocce court, Al Guarisco stands amongst his friends, old and new. Some of the players have been in Daphne all their lives. One came many years ago from Michigan. One hails from Nebraska. Yet, everyone is here to embrace the sweet life –“la dolce vita” – in this charming, friendly town. And bocce provides a little hint of that. Food, fellowship and a lovely setting. What could be more Italian than that?

The Game of Bocce

Bocce Set

The location:
Bocce can be played on a court, a flat grassy area or even on sand. 

The players:
2 teams of one, two or four players  

The balls:
4 large bocce balls per team
1 smaller ball, called the pallino

The Rules:
1. The team that wins the coin tossstarts the game by tossing the pallino within the playing area. 
2. The same team then throws their first bocce ball — all balls are tossed underhand. 
3. Then, the opposing team throws their first bocce ball. 
4. After the first two bocce balls are thrown, the team with the bocce furthest away from the pallino then throws all their remaining balls, trying to throw each as close to the pallino as possible. Hitting either the pallino or either team’s bocce balls is allowed, and it can be helpful to try to knock other teams’ balls away from the pallino.
5. After all the bocce balls have been tossed, the frame is over.  
6. The team with the bocce closest to the pallino wins the frame, and is the only team that can score points for that frame. 

The winners of the frame are awarded a single point for each bocce that is closer to the pallino than the losing team’s best toss. If a bocce is touching the pallino, it is called a “baci” or “kiss” and two points are awarded. Then the next frame begins. The game is finished once one team reaches a predetermined score (typically 12).

Left to Right Veronica Ginn sips an Americano while chatting with Omar Mulla. Italian antipasti plated for guests to nibble between games. Chesley Allegri begins to set up the picnic at W.O. Lott Park.

Buen Aperitivo

An apéritif is an Italian alcoholic or nonalcoholic drink that is imbibed before meals to stimulate the appetite. Traditionally, aperitivo cocktail options tend to be light on alcohol and bitter in taste, pairing perfectly with salty snacks, meats and cheeses. 

In Italy, enjoying apéritifs alongside friends and family is not only a gastronomic event, but also a social tradition. It is quite common to meet with friends and family to enjoy a delicious aperitivo and spend some time together. While Italian aperitivos usually take place in the lead up to dinner, the spirit of socializing, having a cocktail and enjoying appetizers also compliments an outdoor spring party or a leisurely day of lawn games. 

Americano Cocktail

An Americano, a classic Italian apéritif is a refreshing cocktail that stimulates the appetite.

Makes 1 

1 1/2 ounce Campari
1 1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
club soda, to top
Orange slice, for garnish

1. Combine Campari and vermouth in a highball glass.
2. Fill glass with ice, then top with club soda. Garnish with orange slice.

Legend has it that the Americano came first, and the more-famous Negroni was a stiffer riff on this bitter and sweet cocktail. Whichever came first, we chose this apéritif for easy afternoon sipping while playing Italian lawn games. Swap the club soda for gin if you’re looking for a bigger punch.

Want more Campari?

The Negroni Sbagliato, a version invented in the 1970s when a bartender “mistakenly” put prosecco in a customer’s drink instead of gin (sbagliato means mistaken), got a major boost in popularity in 2022 when Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke, the costars of HBO’s “House of Dragon,” went viral on TikTok talking about the Negroni Sbagliato. The video has been watched more than 33 million times and has prompted a resurgence in popularity of the drink.

Left to Right Luigi’s Italian Ices. Chesley Allegri cruises on a Vespa, courtesy of D&D Cycles Pensacola. Vespas debuted in Italy during World War II but grew in popularity when stars such as Audrey Hepburn and Anita Ekberg zipped around Italy in “Roman Holiday” (1953) and “La Dolce Vita” (1960).


With an outdoor picnic, you can still enjoy elegant, fresh food without having to make everything from scratch. Don’t shy away from premade pesto or jarred spreads. Store-bought items can be spruced up when paired with quality ingredients such as the fresh produce that is abundant in the Bay area. Italian ices or ice pops from the freezer section add a nostalgic touch, harkening back to childhood memories of chasing the ice cream truck on a warm spring day.

Marinated White Beans

Marinated white beans with crostinis

Marinated white beans can be served as an appetizer on crostini, as a hearty lunch over a piece of rustic bread or warmed as the base of a salmon entrée. It can be eaten chilled, room temp or warmed. 

Makes 5 cups

2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
4 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/2 cup finely chopped mint
1/2 cup finely chopped chives
1/2 cup olive oil
3 15-ounce cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

1. Combine shallot and vinegar in a small bowl and let sit 5 minutes.
2. Mix herbs and oil in a large bowl and toss to coat. Add beans, red pepper and salt. Toss again. Add shallot mixture and toss gently to combine. Cover and chill before serving.

Cook’s note: Beans can be made 3 days ahead. 

Rustic Italian Ciabatta

Recipe adapted from King Arthur Baking Company

Rustic Italian Ciabatta

Makes 2 loaves

3/4 cup cool water
1 3/4 cups + 2 tablespoons unbleached bread flour
1/8 teaspoon instant yeast or active dry yeast

1 3/4 cups + 2 tablespoons unbleached bread flour
1 teaspoon instant yeast or active dry yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3/4 cup lukewarm water

1. Make the biga by stirring the water, flour and yeast together in a large bowl. Cover and let rest at room temperature for 12 to 16 hours.
2. To make the dough, in the bowl of an electric stand mixer, combine the flour, yeast, and salt. 
3. Add the lukewarm water to the biga, mixing to incorporate, and then add to the bowl of flour. Mix on low speed with a dough hook until dough becomes cohesive, about 2 minutes. Increase mixer to medium speed and knead to form an elastic, sticky dough, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove bowl from mixer and cover, letting rise for 1 hour.
4. Perform a bowl fold by using a wet hand to grab a section of dough from one side, lifting it up and then pressing down firmly into the middle. Repeat ten times. Cover and let the dough rise for another hour.
5. Turn dough out onto a liberally floured work surface and sprinkle lots of flour on top. Gently stretch dough to an 8-by-10-inch rectangle, and cut it into two 4-by-10-inch pieces.
Transfer the loaves onto a piece of parchment, leaving about 6 inches between them. Cover with a lightly greased piece of plastic wrap and let rise until the loaves have expanded and look puffy, about 1 to 2 hours. The loaves are ready for the oven when an indent made with your fingertip stays visible for a few seconds. If it springs back, the loaves need more time. 
6. Thirty minutes before the loaves are ready to bake, put a baking stone in the oven and preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Spritz the dough with water and transfer the parchment with the dough onto the stone. If you don’t have a baking stone, put the parchment on a baking pan and put on the middle rack. Lower the oven temperature to 425 degrees. Bake the ciabatta until it’s golden brown, about 25 minutes. Turn oven off, remove the stone if you’ve used one, crack the door open about 2 inches, and allow ciabatta to cool completely in the turned-off oven.  

Italian Picnic Sandwiches

Biga is a type of pre-fermentation used in Italian baking. A biga adds complexity to
the bread’s flavor and is often used in breads that need a light, open texture with holes,
like ciabatta. 

The large, open holesin ciabatta are perfect for capturing pools of olive oil, pesto or other spreads. Slice the loaf horizontally to make the perfect Italian sandwich.

Italian Picnic Sandwiches

Serves 6 – 8

Rustic Italian Ciabatta (see above)
1 12-ounce jar roasted red peppers
1 7-ounce container refrigerated pesto
1 16-ounce log of sliced fresh mozzarella
1 5-ounce container baby spinach leaves

Slice ciabatta longways and lay flat. Spread pesto inside the top and layer roasted red peppers on the bottom. Top with cheese and a pile of spinach. Then put the top on and slice into servings.

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