Locals will recognize the corner restaurant in Upper Fells Point as the old Henninger’s Tavern, which closed last year after more than three decades. Food lovers should know that the Indiana native recently cooked in Washington at the beloved Tail Up Goat and, before that, in Phoenix for famed pizza maestro Chris Bianco. Tutlewski’s resume is as eclectic as his current menu. Past gigs have 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 Yugoslav-born grandmother, Donna Wranich, who is less than 5 feet tall, and her family’s Polish heritage. The chef, who with his wife moved to Baltimore last year to be close to family, says he draws inspiration from his late grandmother’s recipes, written in his own handwriting, but feels free to innovate.
Check out her pierogi, four pan-fried half moons smothered in sour cream and…I suspect grandma has never even heard of crispy chili, let alone used. But therein lies the popular condiment, adding texture and boldness to a tradition made lighter and more springy than usual with olive oil and sour cream in the batter. . Stuffed with buttered mashed potatoes with horseradish, the pierogi could almost be mistaken for pot stickers.
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This being Maryland, there is crab, served as cod and on toast. The latter is a small raft of warm bread filled with fresh seafood and deviled egg salad, its rich creaminess offset by crunchy radishes, apples and the zing of yuzu vinaigrette. Sasha Levine, who worked with Tutlewski at the Prado and moved east to serve as co-chef, calls the build “Rob’s crazy toast.” Okay, but eating it is polishing it.
The menu is written to “explain dishes through their titles” or spark discussion with staff, the chef says. The guy behind “Bob’s” chopped salad? He’s Tutlewski’s late father, who worked at a food market in his youth and later became “an encyclopedia of great restaurants” across the country, says his proud son, whose chickpea and sopressata salad sings with oregano and garlic.
Serving dishes associated with relatives who are no longer there gives comfort to the chef, he says. When he cooks them, “my family is always with me”.
The odd dish seems to be skateboarding, until Tutlewski explains that pan-fried fish, primarily perch and walleye, were staples from his years in Indiana, a signature in many Midwestern taverns. Naturally beautiful, the kite-shaped wavy ray is dusted with rice flour, pan-fried and topped with a stone fruit salad and shavings of celeriac. The starter blush, flavored with scallops, is made from Espelette pepper. The smile on my face comes from the chef’s fresh approach to fish and fruit.
The surprise disappointment on the menu? Tavern pizzas – from a chef who rode with a chef who made a name for himself thanks to pies. Although cut into squares, as per custom, the puffy base and large blisters deviate from the cracker-y ideal. A pizza also arrived with an unfortunate burn on the bottom.
Goblet Half Full: This just leaves more room for some of the chef’s family treasures. You’d miss the point of coming here if you didn’t try the schnitzel, kielbasa-stuffed pork from neighbor Ostrowski’s on Bank Street, smothered in aioli and countered with a sting of pickled celery. (Like cozy Elle in Washington, Little Donna’s revels in fermentation.) The aioli is labeled “miracle schnitz,” a play on Miracle Whip. The chopped pickles explain some of the magic of the sauce.
“Eating with three is so much better than eating with two,” he overheard a man sandwiched between two companions at the bar. His happiest philosophy might have referred to his business, but it could just as well apply to the ability to try more dishes.
Some items sell out. A frosted vintage parfait glass filled with brownie chunks, heavy whipped cream, drizzled cherries and peanuts at the next table dares you not to order the sublime treat.
Little Donna’s is the kind of place the host is likely to remember you after just one visit with a cheery “Welcome back!” A few employees work in the music business, which explains sound entertainment; dinner tastes better with Herbie Mann fluting through”Muscle Shoals Nitty Gritty.” If there’s one issue I have with the service, it’s the jet speed with which the food comes out. Slow down, kids!
The restaurant, barely 52 seats including a front patio, seems to have existed forever. Half lace curtains decorate the windows, arched with stained glass, in the narrow front rooms, one painted mint, the second a peach hue. The piece de resistance is the legacy wooden bar, one side of which is decorated with a peeling military poster and a sign framed in bottle caps: “Be nice or go away,” it reads.
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“The new owners kept what they wanted” from Henninger’s Tavern, a server who worked at Henninger’s told me during a visit. Good appeal, keeping the velvet portrait of JFK with other 60s icons and the little brass plaques above the banquettes that immortalize people who got engaged at the old watering hole. And I love the plastic placemats made from photographs in a Baltimore landmarks book. The chef credits his wife, co-owner Kaleigh Schwalbe, for bringing together old and new at Little Donna’s. A program manager for information integrity at the National Democratic Institute, she recently converted to her husband’s Polish cuisine. Tutlewski says he’s delighted to see how quickly Schwalbe recovered from a long day’s work thanks to pierogi and sauerkraut.
The couple enjoys an easy commute. The house is above the restaurant. “She’s upstairs defending democracy, and I’m downstairs flipping omelettes,” Tutlewski likes to joke.
Even before Little Donna’s was a gleam in the chef’s eye, he told his wife, “Polish food will one day feed our family.
Their restaurant is young, but I can’t wait to see it grow old.
1812 Bank Street, Baltimore. 443-438-3956. littledonnas.com. Hours: Indoor and outdoor dining and take-out meals Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Thursday to Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Price: Small plates $8 to $16, pizzas and large plates $14 to $26. Sound control: 73 decibels/must speak in a high 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.