Before my recent dinner at Cosima (3000 Falls Road, Mill No. 1,  708-7352, cosimamill1.com), I had never met Donna Crivello, the restaurant's proprietor. But I was familiar with the work of her hands—both through the various incarnations of her signature eponymous restaurants (now winnowed to a sole location, Donna's at Cross Keys), and through Cosima's website, which is filled with gorgeous images of Crivello at work. Nails cut blunt, fingers painted with flour, her hands roll a long sausage of dough across a wooden board, pluck rosemary needles from their stem, and carefully pour olive oil from a red gallon tin can over a pan of focaccia. In the one photo that shows her whole person, Crivello, smiling broadly, cradles a giant cone of breadsticks as if it were a bouquet of flowers or an infant. One hand supports the bread gently from the bottom of the cone; the other hand, ruddy and with splayed fingers, holds the bread close to her heart.
This image—the sense of fulfillment in her bright expression, the way she holds an armful of bread as if it is the most natural thing to do—seems as good as any to explain the feeling you get at Cosima, Crivello's love letter to Sicily and southern Italy. Named for her grandmother, the restaurant is also about reviving things of the past—be it a menu rich with dishes that wouldn't be out of place in your nonna's kitchen or a dining room created in a former 19th century cotton mill. Yet nothing about Cosima is old-fashioned, except perhaps for Crivello's brand of hospitality, which includes making the rounds to tables to welcome guests and share stories (she and one of the diners at my table compared stories of midnight mass and meatless feasts on Christmas Eve). We were treated as friends even though we were strangers.
There's a similar sense of recognition and discovery in the menu, which is divided into primi, both hot and cold (which are often raw, marinated, or cured), individual pizzas, and roughly a dozen entrees. A primi (or small plate) of involtini di melanzane ($12), sliced eggplant curled around a generous dollop of ricotta, sauced, and bubbling in a compact cast iron skillet, feels comfortably traditional, where an order of arancini ($11), Sicilian rice balls, are a revelation. Lighter than most renditions, the crusty exterior opens to reveal a melting middle of smoked mozzarella, like a savory version of a Cadbury Easter egg, and the schmear of arugula pesto that accompanies it gives the dish a real freshness. A basket of fritto misto di pesce ($16) with lemon aioli is also close to perfect. A wisp of batter turns calamari legs into spiky florets and smelts into slim, crispy fish cigars that crackle under pressure.
Portions are generous to a fault, which feels fair given the prices, which skew high. And you could easily graze and feel fulfilled with two small plates (three for larger appetites), though the choice wouldn't necessarily be more economical than ordering one entrée, which include a compact offering of pastas, seafood, and meats.
The interchangeable terms "homemade," "housemade," or the ever-fashionable "made in house" may make our eyes glaze over (or just roll in our heads), but I'm still seduced by restaurants that take the time to make their own pasta and charcuterie. Casarecce with broccoli rabe and sausage ($24) satisfies in both those categories with nubs of sausage nestled alongside red peppers, bracing broccoli rabe, and noodles, rolled into thin curls or scrolls. The kitchen also has an able hand with straightforward dishes like bistecca alla siciliana ($36), a strip steak from Seven Hills Farm, grilled over a wood fire and served with a heap of potato wedges, and elevates a simple swordfish fillet (pesce spade, $34) to the sublime by serving it with eggplant caponata and a beautiful saffron risotto. But it's the coniglio agro dolce ($32) that makes you taste and wonder and taste again. Rabbit, cooked until falling off the bone, bobs in what amounts to a light stew flavored with green olives and oranges (and maybe a little mint?) served over ethereal polenta. Though not visually appealing, the dish offers a combination of flavors unusual outside of the Mediterranean and more welcome for it.
Cosima's long list of sweets include a first-rate cannoli punctuated by candied orange rind ($9) and sfinci ($9), fried doughnuts made from choux pastry (like beignets) that gain their sweetness from being shaken, tableside, in a bag of cinnamon sugar, by an attentive server.
Just a little over a month after opening, Cosima is firing on all cylinders. Service is solicitous—and maybe slightly overeager, but that's a good problem to have. Our server went out of his way to check in frequently and offer an opinion or suggestion when asked. When I marveled at Cosima's truly staggering wine list (two dozen wines by the glass and more by the bottle that represent the south of Italy from Lazio and Umbria to Sicily and Sardinia—all Italian except for the champagne), he wanted to bring me several samples to choose from, and how can you say no to that?
Cosima also offers the thrill of winding your way around Falls Road to wind even further down Mill No. 1's steep drive to have a meal in the mill's renovated boiler room—all brick and high windows with long banquettes, several small dining nooks, a massive wood burning grill, and a few artful nods to the building's industrial past. As of this writing, the outdoor patio that overlooks the Jones Falls has yet to open. When it does, it will be one of the prettiest places to eat some of the city's loveliest food.