Chef Robbie Tutlewski was just waking up from a nap on the couch with his newborn son Jesse around 4 a.m. Tuesday when the emails started pouring in.
Little Donna’s, the Upper Fells Point restaurant Tutlewski owns with his wife Kaleigh, had been named on the New York Times’ 2023 list of the nation’s 50 best restaurants.
“We were kind of shocked, kind of thinking they made a mistake or something,” Tutlewski said.
But he also acknowledges the dedication that he and his staff have put in since the restaurant opened in June 2022.
“We work really hard,” he said. “There’s a lot of great restaurants out there. We’re just really happy to be a part of the club.”
Little Donna’s is the first restaurant in Baltimore – and all of Maryland, for that matter – to be named to the annual list since the New York Times started publishing it in 2021. The newspaper sent a dozen reporters, editors, and critics to hundreds of restaurants across the United States before narrowing down their list to the top 50.
New York Times reporter Nikita Richardson wrote that “Little Donna’s encapsulates the feeling of coming home.” She was reminded of “Grandma’s sitting room” but with “flair and an exceptional bar program to boot.”
The restaurant is named after Tutlewski’s 4 1⁄2 foot tall grandmother Donna, who immigrated to the United States as a refugee from Zagreb in former Yugoslavia (now Croatia). His sister Jill nicknamed her “Little Donna” for her small stature.
In the kitchen of their family’s home in Gary, Indiana, where Donna lived with them for several years, Tutlewski grew up helping his grandmother cook fresh soups, breads, and Serbian crepe-like pancakes called palačinke practically every day.
Donna passed away about 15 years ago, but he said he knows exactly what she would say if she heard the restaurant had received this honor.
“She was a very strong-headed person, but she didn’t show much emotions,” he said. “But when she was happy, she would always go ‘my little Robbie.’ So she would say, ‘Oh, my little Robbie.’ She’d be proud. She’d be super, super proud.”
Tutlewski describes the restaurant’s menu as Midwestern tavern fare, with some inspirations from his grandmother’s Southeastern European heritage, like palačinke and pierogi.
Other dishes like the pork schnitzel stuffed with Baltimore’s own Ostrowski kielbasa, or the smoked Carolina trout dip, pay homage to his father.
“My dad used to get smoked everything: smoked fish, smoked sausages,” Tutlewski said. “He was known for his sausage and sauerkraut…. We’d get thrown out of parties with it. They wouldn’t allow us in the house because it smelled too much.”
Although the New York Times attributed Little Donna’s tavern-style pizzas to Chicago, where Tutlewski attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, he said they are more reminiscent of the pies he grew up with in Indiana.
The secret to a good pizza, he said, is working the dough as thin as possible.
“It’s just one of those pizzas where it’s very indulging…. Once you start eating, you just can’t stop,” he said.
But Tutlewski said making the New York Times’ list is about more than the food for him; it’s about the relationships he has built over the last 20 years:
People like Kenny and Jayne Vieth, the owners of the former Henninger’s Tavern, which Little Donna’s succeeded.
And Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco, whose restaurant Tutlewski ran and who taught him to love the art of pizza-making.
And the staff who keep Little Donna’s running.
“Nowhere can you find a collective group of people that are this great together, working for the same cause,” he said.
Most of all, Tutlewski is proud to share this moment with his family, especially his son who will turn four weeks old this Saturday. He hopes to model to his son the importance of being true to himself and following his dreams.
“One thing I love about myself is I inspire people to be themselves and trust themselves,” he said.
He said his grandmother’s cooking lifted the spirits of anyone who shared a meal in their home in Indiana.
“A big reason why I do what I do today is the way she made people happy by cooking for them,” he said “You could come to our house and be upset there, but you were always leaving happy and left with food.”
Now, when guests walk through Little Donna’s burgundy door at 1812 Bank St. and dine under their tin ceiling, Tutlewski wants them to feel that same care and compassion.
“My language of love is acts of kindness,” he said. “Through cooking is how I communicate to people…. It’s one tool that I have that I can bring people together or make somebody happy or change somebody’s day or change somebody’s emotions.”
Little Donna’s only takes reservations by email or phone call; it has eschewed any automated online reservation system so that it can maintain a more personal communication with customers. Half of the restaurant is left open for walk-ins.
As their reservations are filling up for the next couple months, Tutlewski asks guests to be kind and be patient.
“I just want everybody to know, at least out here, thanks,” he said. “Thanks for all the support that they’ve given us. It’s been huge.”