When Chef Terry Doner closed his Gary Road fine-dining restaurant in October, he left the door of reopening barely cracked. The door at Chef T’s Garden Grill is now wide open. This time he is cooking with his decades-long friend, chef Italo Casini.

Casini is known in Lakeland and Winter Haven for serving first-rate Italian dishes at high-end restaurants such as Palm Court, La Palma (both now closed) and Arabella’s.

“He is incredibly talented,” Doner said of Casini.

When LkldNow spoke to Doner in October, he was shutting Chef T’s after a dozen years. He questioned his appetite for his work and said he needed some time away.

Doner, 62, spent some time in New England. And it became a case of you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

“It was never a question of can I do it,” Doner said. “It was a question of do I want to do it.”

The answer was a resounding yes. Doner reopened about a month ago. “I love what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m really excited.”

Doner and Casini have huge mutual respect. Casini said that at age 74, he wasn’t looking for a business partner or the headaches that come with that. He’s a chef now, not an owner.

“I just wanted to work, to have something to do,” Casini said.

In 1973 Casini took over the family restaurant in his native Florence, Italy.

In 1982 he continued his chef’s journey in Los Angeles. 

He came to Lakeland in 1989 to open the very successful Palm Court. That’s where he met Doner.

“Terry was taking care of the plants at Palm Court way back when” Casini said. “Of course, he ended up”  in kitchens. 

Casini also served as a chef at  La Palma in Lakeland and Arabellas in Winter Haven.

Now at Chef T’s, Casini said he loves to cook Italian seafood dishes, including cioppino, his seafood stew that originated in San Francisco.

Last year’s bill of fare was about an equal mix of French and Italian dishes. With Casini in the house, the mix leans a little toward Italian.

Chef T’s is in a grand house built in 1924 at 1525 E. Gary Road. Doner said he has simplified the decor somewhat because he doesn’t want his fine dining place — or the service — to appear stuffy.

He said he never felt comfortable somewhere “where servers refill a water glass after you drink one ounce of water.”

During the pandemic, the seating capacity of Chef T’s has been reduced from 50 to 23. “I expected it to be slow and it has been,” Doner said. “But it’s been much busier than I thought.”

When the restaurant closed in October, one of the most disappointed customers was Kitty Folsom. Now she’s ecstatic.

“I’m thrilled to death,” she said. “The other night I loved the short ribs … Sam, our favorite waiter, hasn’t changed.”

Chef T’s, 1525 E. Gary Road, is open Wednesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 8:30.

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