Little Donna’s restaurant review: It’s all about family at this Baltimore spot

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If you don’t know Robbie Tutlewski, the sight of pierogi, pizza and skate on the same small menu might send your eyebrows north.

Do yourself some good and get to know the chef, or at least some of his food, at one of the best things to season my summer, Little Donna’s in Baltimore.

Locals will recognize the corner restaurant in Upper Fells Point as the former Henninger’s Tavern, which closed last year after more than three decades. Food fans should know that the Indiana native most recently cooked in Washington at the beloved Tail Up Goat and, before that, in Phoenix for Chris Bianco, the acclaimed pizza maestro. Tutlewski’s résumé is as eclectic as his current menu. Past gigs found him at a Native American restaurant, Kai at the Wild Horse Pass Resort, and the Andalusian-inspired Prado, both in Phoenix.

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Now, for the first time, he’s following his late father’s advice to “sell the food you grew up on.” Little Donna’s is a toast to both Tutlewski’s grandmother of Yugoslavian descent, the under-5-foot Donna Wranich, and his family’s Polish heritage. The chef, who with his wife relocated to Baltimore last year to be close to relatives, says he’s inspired by his late grandmother’s recipes, written in her own hand, but feels free to innovate.

Check out his pierogi, four seared half-moons dolloped with sour cream and … I suspect Grandmother never even heard of chili crisp, let alone used it. But there the popular condiment sits, adding texture and sass to a tradition made lighter and more elastic than usual with olive oil and sour cream in the dough. Stuffed with buttery pureed potatoes hit with horseradish, the pierogi could almost be mistaken for pot stickers.

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This being Maryland, there’s crab, served as a coddie and atop toast. The latter is a little raft of warm bread heaped with cool seafood and deviled egg salad, its rich creaminess offset with crisp radish, apple and the zing of yuzu vinaigrette. Sasha Levine, who worked with Tutlewski at Prado and moved east to serve as co-chef, calls the construction “Rob’s crazy toast.” Agreed, but to eat it is to polish it off.

The menu is written to “explain dishes through their titles” or prompt discussion with staff, says the chef. The guy behind “Bob’s” chopped salad? That’s Tutlewski’s late dad, who worked in a food market in his youth and later became “an encyclopedia for great restaurants” around the country, says his proud son, whose salad of chickpeas and sopressata sings with oregano and garlic.

Serving dishes associated with relatives who are no longer around gives the chef comfort, he says. When he cooks them, “my family is still with me.”

The odd dish out appears to be skate, until Tutlewski explains that pan-fried fish, mainly perch and walleye, were staples of his years in Indiana, a signature in a lot of taverns throughout the Midwest. Naturally beautiful, the rippled, kite-shaped skate is dusted in rice flour, pan-fried and heaped with a salad of stone fruit and shaved celery root. The blush on the entree, which tastes like scallops, is from Espelette pepper. The smile on my face is from the chef’s fresh approach to fish and fruit.

The surprise disappointment on the menu? The tavern pizzas — from a chef who rolled with a chef who made his name off pies. While cut into squares, per custom, the puffy base and big blisters depart from the cracker-y ideal. One pizza also arrived with an unfortunate burn on the bottom.

Tumbler half full: That just leaves more space for some of the chef’s family treasures. You’d miss the point of coming here if you didn’t attempt the schnitzel, pork stuffed with kielbasa from a neighbor, Ostrowski’s of Bank Street, lapped with aioli and countered with some sting, from pickled celery. (Like the cozy Elle in Washington, Little Donna’s revels in fermentation.) The aioli is tagged “miracle schnitz,” a play on Miracle Whip. Chopped pickles account for some of the sauce’s magic.

“Eating with three is so much better than eating with two,” I overheard a man sandwiched between two female companions at the bar say. His more-the-merrier philosophy might have referenced his company, but it could just as well apply to the chance to try more dishes.

Some items sell themselves. A frosted vintage parfait glass filled with brownie chunks, thick whipped cream, boozy cherries and Virginia peanuts at the next table dares you not to order the sublime treat.

Little Donna’s is the kind of place where the host is likely to remember you after a single visit with a cheery “Welcome back!” A couple of employees are in the music business, which helps explain the aural entertainment; dinner tastes better with Herbie Mann fluting through “Muscle Shoals Nitty Gritty.” If there’s an issue I have with the service, it’s the jet speed with which the food comes out. Slow down, kids!

The restaurant, a mere 52 seats including a front patio, looks like it’s been around forever. Lacy half-curtains spiff up the windows, arched with stained glass, in the narrow front rooms, one painted the color of mint, the second a shade of peach. The piece de resistance is the inherited wood bar, one side of which is decorated with a peeling military poster and sign framed in bottle caps: “Be nice or leave,” it reads.

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“The new owners kept what they wanted” from Henninger’s Tavern, a waiter who worked at Henninger’s tells me one visit. Good call, keeping the velvet portrait of JFK with other ’60s icons and the little brass plaques above the banquettes that immortalize people who got engaged in the onetime watering hole. And I love the plastic place mats fashioned from photographs from a book about Baltimore landmarks. The chef credits his wife, co-owner Kaleigh Schwalbe, with blending old and new at Little Donna’s. A program manager for information integrity at the National Democratic Institute, she’s a fairly recent convert to her husband’s Polish cooking. Tutlewski says he was pleased to see the speed with which Schwalbe recovered from a long day at work thanks to some pierogi and sauerkraut.

The couple enjoys an easy commute. Home is above the restaurant. “She’s upstairs defending democracy, and I’m downstairs flipping omelets,” Tutlewski likes to joke.

Before Little Donna’s was even a gleam in the chef’s eye, he told his wife, “Polish food is going to feed our family one day.”

Their restaurant is young, but I’m looking forward to watching it age.

1812 Bank St., Baltimore. 443-438-3956. littledonnas.com. Open: Indoor and outdoor dining and takeout Wednesday 5 to 9 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday 5 to 10 p.m. Prices: Small plates $8 to $16, pizzas and large plates $14 to $26. Sound check: 73 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: The old building is not designed or equipped to accommodate wheelchairs. Pandemic protocols: Staff are not required to wear masks or be vaccinated.

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