Food & Drink

A Love Letter to Little Donna’s

Somehow, chef Robbie Tutlewski's Upper Fells Point spot feels like it’s always been here. Like a part of Old Baltimore that I thought was long gone had never left.
—Illustration by Noemi Fabra

A New Old Flame

A love letter to Little Donna’s.

When I moved to Baltimore a decade ago, it felt like I’d arrived at the party too late. Martick’s had closed. The Cultured Pearl and Gampy’s were shuttered. That strawberry pie at Haussner’s was a distant memory.

Our city had once been dotted with dining establishments that bottled its eccentric everyman spirit—where artists, factory workers, newspapermen, and country-club types could rub elbows amidst eclectic décor, over unexpectedly delightful food and drink. And so I thanked goodness for Henninger’s Tavern, one of the last of its kind in Upper Fells Point.

Here, on the corner of Bank and Durham Streets, the clientele was local, the barkeeps surly, the walls strewn with Colts pennants and Orioles bobbleheads and JFK paintings and leopard print—a Blaze Starr headshot hanging above the bar like some patron saint. You could order a house-made TV dinner along with white-tablecloth crab cakes and a dangerously perfect dirty martini. It was a dogeared slice of Old Baltimore.

Alas, after more than three decades, Henninger’s closed in 2021, too. But when I walked into that same rowhome restaurant last summer, after it had reopened as a new spot named Little Donna’s, I let out an audible cheer.

The place was cleaned up a bit, yes—new menu, fresh coat of paint, some outdoor seating—but with a hat tip to its beloved predecessor, and the quirky yet quality hospitality that came before.

Chef-owner Robbie Tutlewski is a Midwest native who clearly gets the downhome charm of our Rust Belt cities. As used to be custom in the corner-bar business, he lives upstairs with his family and dogs. Downstairs, in the small kitchen, he turns out some of the most delicious and distinctive food in town, if not the entire East Coast.

That’s no surprise, once you hear Tutlewski’s credentials—from Chicago’s Le Cordon Bleu, Phoenix’s Pizzeria Bianco, D.C.’s Tail Up Goat—and yet, there’s not a single air in the place, besides the Pavlov’s dog-worthy smell of his tavern-style tomato and cheese pies. The dishes are a hodgepodge of influences, be it his culinary training or his newfound neighborhood or his Yugoslavian grandmother—the restaurant’s namesake—each a playful, prodigious iteration of some classic you’ve known and loved.

I could spend most nights knuckles deep in a plate of house pierogies, floating in a pool of smokey chili oil beneath the brightness of sour cream and chives (which should absolutely be ordered with the suggested side of sausage and kraut).

On every occasion, the cacophony of texture and taste that is the crispy cabbage pancake has left my fellow diners fighting for the last bite. And the pan-fried pork schnitzel—stuffed with Ostrowski’s kielbasa from down the street, then topped with pickled fennel and celery—is so decadent, it’s almost indecent, helping to earn them a nod on The New York Times “Best Restaurants” list last year.

Here’s what I know: Always, the taco pizza. Always, at least one “Dad’s Beer on Ice,” aka a michelada-ed Zadie’s lager from Union Craft. Always, a trip to see the Hindenburg mural above the urinal, left over from Henninger’s days.

Go solo, on a first date, or fiftieth, and alongside a gaggle of good friends, with Tutlewski personally looking into any last pantry stash of maraschino cherries for your toddler’s Shirley Temple. Maybe you’ll see Bud and Karin Tiffany there, too, nearby neighbors behind the cult-classic Peter’s Inn, who recommend the place to regulars on their own nights off. They must also see in it what I do.

Which is: Somehow, Little Donna’s feels like it’s always been here. Like a part of Old Baltimore that I thought was long gone had never left. Like maybe it never will. And thank goodness for that

This is one of five deeply personal Love Letters—reflections on restaurants that hold a special spot in our hearts—from our 2024 Best Restaurants list. View more of our picks, here.