They call it “The Garden” in Italian for a reason.
Inside Il Giardino Ristorante at the Oceanfront, a ficus tree towers over the middle of the dining room.
It has captured attention of customers for 36 years. The ficus, which stands about 20 feet tall, was planted by Tony Gargiulo, the restaurant’s original owner, in 1985, about six months after Il Giardino opened.
The first tree he tried to cultivate there didn’t survive, but the ficus thrived.
It grew out of a hole in the ground and through an opening in the floor. At the end of each night, servers pour water from pitchers into the hole.
The tree’s arching branches span about 6 feet long. Its green leaves press against the glass windows of the restaurant’s atrium, soaking in the sunlight.
“It just flourishes,” said Brian Getz, who has worked at Il Giardino for 23 years. The Italian restaurant on 10th Street has an authentic, vintage feel. Plush, semi-circle booths hug couples on date nights in the dimly-lit dining room.
Adding to the romantic ambiance, string lights woven around the ficus’s multiple trunks fill the room with a warm glow.
During the holiday season, Getz climbs a ladder to hang red bulbs on the tree. He also tidies it up twice a week in the fall before the restaurant opens.
On Thursday morning he pulled a white tablecloth from a stack of clean linens and slung it over his head and shirt like a superhero’s cape. Then he grabbed one of the tree’s long, sturdy trunks with both hands and shook it.
Spent leaves fell like snow over him, landing at his feet. He worked in a circle around the base of the tree, shaking several of the trunks until he was out of breath. Then he grabbed a broom.
“I’ve never seen a leaf fall on a dinner plate,” said Augustus Brown, who has worked in Il Giardino’s kitchen for years.
Twice a year, the tree is pruned by a professional arborist, said Maryann Carr, Il Giardino’s manager.
“It’s a little boy’s haircut,” she said, leaning her head back to look at the top of the tree. “You can see the light again.”
Stacy Parker, 757-222-5125, email@example.com