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Donna’s brews more than Baltimore’s first coffee

It’s the white pillars that separate Donna’s coffee bar and café from the other businesses that occupy the old Park Plaza Hotel in Mount Vernon. On one side of them are the cobblestone road and a perfect view of the Washington Monument. But between those pillars is a legend of coffee shop-meets-café for Baltimore’s history books.

"We wanted a place people could eat all day long," said Donna Crivello, co-owner of the shop after whom it is named. "We wanted higher quality food, but more food than you could get in just a pastry."

Until her business venture with partner Alan Hirsch (co-creator of Baltimore’s City Paper ), pastries were all you could get with your coffee, and your choice of venues was limited. Vacarro’s in Little Italy served coffee with its famous Italian desserts, and a few coffee exclusives existed around town.

So it may seem commonplace now, but Donna’s broke serious ground for Baltimore. "When I first opened, people didn’t know what focaccia was, what tapenade was. A lot of people had never even had a cappuccino," Crivello said.

Donna Crivello came from Massachusetts where she worked at the Boston Globe. She joined the Baltimore Sun staff as an art director, but she always wanted to create a European-style café.

"I ran a small catering business on the side," she said. "That kept getting busier and bigger." So her wheels started turning and eventually, so did her career.

She met Hirsch through a mutual friend, and the two gutted on old record store to create the trendy café. The Italian art director-turned-restaurant owner from Boston said people in Baltimore were receptive to the new coffee shop idea.

"It was a late night spot for dessert, pastries and coffee," she explained. But it was also a lunchtime spot for salads and sandwiches. "We didn’t realize it was going to evolve into a dinner spot as well."

Over the next decade, Crivello expanded geographically to the counties, bookstores and even Washington, D.C. At one point, she said she was running 12 restaurants. That number is now down to six, but business is still booming.

"We didn’t realize how busy it was going to be, and the kitchen is very small," she said.

I asked if she had considered franchising to keep expanding, but Crivello was hesitant. "You want to get a model going before you can franchise," she said. "Every place ended up being a little different."

Plus, she likes having a hand in how each of her restaurants is run. So she spends her days floating among the six locations. "I taste [the food] everywhere I go," she said.

The menu is mostly salads, sandwiches, a few entrees, and of course, coffee drinks. Different locations offer a few variations depending on the kitchen’s capability. But one thing you’ll always find on the menu—lots of roasted vegetables. "I was looking for news ways of making things that weren’t fried," she said.

She calls it Mediterranean food, but it is closer to her own Italian roots than she likes to admit. "I never wanted to say it’s Italian food because I think it has other influences," she said. "But it’s closer to Italian than anything else." It’s the kind of food she grew up eating, with her own spin on it.

She uses eggplant, artichokes, peppers, mushrooms and fresh leafy greens. You’ll find sun dried tomatoes, goat cheese and pine nuts, but not all in the same dish. There’s crusty breads, rolled tortillas and the traditional pizzas.

For her recipe ideas, Crivello said she was inspired by things she ate growing up. "I just started modifying them to the way I like them, or the way I thought people would like them, or just the way that made them look better."

And let’s not forget dessert. Donna’s may be more than a coffee shop, but her display of homemade desserts tempts even the most disciplined customers. The most popular treats are tiramisu, a warm brownie with ice cream and the apple-cranberry tart.

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