DITMARS — Dan Berrios is new to the game of bocce — but his memories of the sport dates back decades.
Though the semi-retired contractor and former Marine now lives in Bayside, he grew up in Astoria, and remembers a time about 30 years ago when the bocce ball court in Astoria Park was a popular spot in the neighborhood, he said.
"It would be like a family gathering. The mom and the kids would be in the playground and the husbands would be out here playing bocce ball," said Berrios, 61, who started learning the sport himself just a few months ago.
While he's been practicing his skills at a court in Francis Lewis Park, he was back in his old stomping grounds this summer and decided to visit the bocce court in Astoria Park, located across from Shore Boulevard near Charybdis Playground.
"One day I came here and I said to myself, wait a minute, there's a bocce ball court that I remember in Astoria Park," he said. "And I came here and I saw the horrible conditions that this bocce ball court was in, and I was very upset."
In recent years, the court has fallen into disrepair, packed with several feet of hardened dirt and rocks, and part of its wooden frame rotting.
So Berrios approached the Parks Department to offer his services — he works in construction — saying he wants to take over the task of restoring the court.
For the last month and a half, he and a handful of volunteers have shown up every day to dig out the dirt that's accumulated on it, he said.
"I want to bring it back," said Berrios, who served in the Marine Corps for four years.
“As a Marine we give 150 percent, and I give 150 percent, and I’m not going to finish this until I’m completely happy with it and people are playing on the courts," he said.
The neighborhood's only other public bocce court is located in Ditmars Park on Steinway Street and 23rd Avenue, a popular gathering spot for many older residents who come to play there.
Mimmo, a 64-year-old Astoria resident who declined to give his last name, joined Berrios in his restoration efforts recently after he came across him working on the court with a shovel, he said.
Mimmo is a longtime bocce player himself, and frequents the Ditmars Park courts.
"It's a nice game. If you have the right people you can stay and play all day long," he said. "It's a recreation for old people. What do they have to do at home? Watch TV, curse with their wives?"
But bocce has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years, as more young people have begun embracing the sport and bars like Park Slope's Union Hall offer courts to play on.
Anthony Liberatoscioli, a member of the advocacy group Astoria Park Alliance and a lifelong bocce player, said he sees the game as one that could bridge the gap between Astoria's older European residents and its newer, "hipster" set.
"When my wife and I first moved to Astoria 13 years ago, the court was still in somewhat playable condition," Liberatoscioli said in an email.
"We would bring my bocce set out there and play, and the most amazing thing would happen: people of all cultures, African Americans, Muslims, Latinos, would stop and ask 'What is this game?' And I would invite them into the court to play a few rounds with us," he recalled.
"How much more New York can you get?"
Berrios' plan is to continue digging out the bocce court in order to access the drainage holes built into the sides, which are currently clogged with dirt and mud, he said.
Once the space is clear, they'll repair the wooden frame of the court in some spots where the wood is rotting and repaint it, he said.
The Parks Department will provide the volunteers with some of the supplies, including the material that goes on top of the court's surface, a spokeswoman said.
Berrios thinks he will be able to have the court in working condition by spring, and plans to volunteer to maintain it regularly after that.
He'd like to eventually get more benches installed around the court, as well as lights so people can play in the evening.
"Everybody is more than welcome here, and that's what I want," he said. "I want people to come here, to enjoy the park, to enjoy the views and to enjoy the game."
Astoria Park Alliance will lead a cleanup of the bocce court Saturday. Anyone interested in volunteering should meet at 10 a.m. outside the Astoria Park field house. Materials will be provided.