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Candlepin bowling: mastering the New England art

By Candice Bautista

Section: Arts, Top Stories

September 23, 2011

Last weekend marked my first venture in candlepin bowling. My friends and I originally found out about candlepin bowling when we wanted to go bowling for my birthday. Upon arriving at Sacco’s Bowl Haven in Somerville, we were appalled to notice that, not only was there a pretty fancy looking restaurant attached to the bowling alley, the bowling itself was bizarre. Why were the pins so skinny? Why were people throwing skeeballs down the lane? What do you mean I need a reservation? My friends, who are also not native New Englanders, were just as confused as I was. We walked out dazed and made a resolution to return one day and figure out this sport.

Last weekend, we decided to go back to Sacco’s Bowl Haven. This time I called ahead for an 8 o’clock lane and also put my name on a list for tables at the adjoining restaurant, called Flatbread Company. On the phone, the woman explained that “call-aheads” did not guarantee a lane at the time, but we were welcome to hang out in the restaurant until a lane was free.

We arrived at Sacco’s at 7:30 p.m. Being in Davis Square, the atmosphere had a hip vibe emanating from every part of the place, whether it was from the hostess with a tattoo sleeve of the Yellow Brick Road or the wall drawings featuring organic onions and tomatoes. We were still bewildered, but we tried to hide it as we were brought to a table for dinner.

Flatbread, a classy pizza place, first came off as a bit pretentious and inspired many snarky comments from my friends and me. Our waitress talked on at length about how organic their vegetables were and, when she asked if we had any questions, it took all our willpower not to say, “And I’m going to ask you one more time—it’s organic?” (Viewers of “Portlandia” will get that reference.) We soon bit our tongues, however, once we had our first taste of the pizza. All that organic stuff must have some legitimacy; the pizza, which came in both a personal and a shared size, was one of the freshest and most delicious things I’ve ever had. It helped that the chef was spinning the pizza dough in the air—just like in the movies!—no more than 10 feet away from me, while the actual brick oven in which the pizza was baked was just 20 feet away from our seats. To top it all off, the food was a pretty good price considering how delicious it was and the fact that the restaurant was connected to a bowling alley. Flatbread is a place I would go to regardless of whether or not I was bowling; it’s not the place you’d settle for simply because it’s there.

Waiting for our lane at Flatbread did become uncomfortable. Though 8 p.m. came and went, we didn’t mind because we were eating and having fun. By 9 p.m., however, we were getting a little antsy as our waitress came to our table and said, “I’m really sorry about this, but the next lane should be available by 10 p.m. You guys are around third on the list, but there are a couple of people who called ahead for 6 and 7 p.m. and they’ll be given priority if they show up.” This is clearly a faulty system; we had checked in at 7:30 p.m. but, if the 6 p.m. people decided to show, they’d be given a lane first?

We did end up getting a lane at 10 p.m.—two hours after our original time—but we were too excited about finally candlepin bowling to care. At first, we were still accustomed to regular bowling. In the first frame, my friend threw a ball down the lane five times waiting for the pins to reset. Embarrassed, we sat down and pretended to look at something while actually observing the other lanes in action. The girl in the lane next to us bowled with great poise and hit the button on the ball-rack. Oh. Then I gave up and went to a hostess for help. She gave me a score-sheet and a little table of rules. Things were beginning to make sense!

I recently watched the Indian movie “Lagaan,” in which an Indian village learns to play cricket in order to defeat the English imperialists and thus keep them from paying another three years’ worth of taxes, or “lagaan.” The village learns by watching the English play from afar. While candlepin bowling, I couldn’t help but notice similarities between the movie and the evening. We were foreigners trying so desperately to understand a game that these natives seemed to play so flawlessly. As I struggled to figure out how to mark the score-sheet, the people next to us bowled a strike. As my friends tried to figure out exactly how many pins had fallen, the people in the next lane drunkenly managed a spare. True, we were not playing to keep imperialists from taxing us but we, like the Indian village, were playing for our pride. We wanted to prove to New England that we were just as capable of doing everything that they could do.

By midnight, we knew the rules of the game and all the possible markings and combinations of situations that would allow us to return to Sacco’s in the future and blend in as natives. Overall, Sacco’s was a pretty fantastic place with interesting people, good food and many fun times to be had. I’m definitely going to go back soon, ready to fine-tune my game—I’m just going to call ahead for 6 p.m. this time.

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