There are much easier restaurants to find in Baltimore than Cosima, the Southern Italian eatery whose entrance requires a winding descent along a steep driveway. Even with the aid of GPS, you could overlook the orange arrow — which appears with little warning around a Falls Road bend — pointing drivers toward the complementary valet. I did.
But those who perservere will be rewarded for their efforts.
Any annoyance I felt trying to find the eatery on a recent Thursday night was quickly replaced with appreciation for Cosima’s beautiful design, confident service and strong yet uncomplicated bar program. I focused on drinks, but noticed that the 20 or so nearby diners seemed generally pleased with their dishes of homemade pasta, pizza and other Italian fare.
Suddenly, finding Cosima felt like discovering well-buried treasure.
Opened in early February by Donna Crivello (of Donna’s Cafe and its various iterations) and her longtime partners Alan Hirsch and Judith Golding, Cosima looks gorgeous upon first glance, and grows more handsome with each stare.
Dark, reclaimed wood accents pair strikingly well with the marble bar and off-white stones lining the right wall. Ceilings that seem to go on forever add to the drama, while establishing a sophisticated aesthetic.
A few feet from the hostess area is the square bar, the clear focal point of the first floor. (More dining seating is available on the second floor.) With only a couple at the bar, I immediately grabbed a seat.
The gentle hum of the open kitchen, coupled with patrons’ conversations at nearby tables, lulled me into a mood — unrushed, unworried — perfect for a Sicily-inspired experience. Smartly, there are no TVs to distract from what’s being placed in front of you.
My bartender, who I later learned was beverage director Kristen Starks, provided a warm greeting and answered any questions I had with ease. She was there not only to make drinks, but to explain and guide customers through a menu filled with Italian words I failed to sound out.
Cosima’s bar program is thoughtful and not overstuffed. Wines, all from Southern Italy, can be purchased by the glass (six to 10 red and white options, ranging from $10 to $17) or bottle (nearly 70 types, from $38 to $180).
A dozen draft options (10 beers, a cider and a mead, from $7 to $14) showed Cosima values local products. On my visit, products by Dundalk’s Key Brewing Co., Woodberry’s Union Craft Brewing and Mount Vernon’s The Brewer’s Art were available.
Created by Starks, the warm-weather menu of eight cocktails ($10-$14) emphasizes citrus and bright flavors, while maintaining a noticeable presence of amaro, the Italian herbal liqueur more Baltimore bars have embraced in recent years.
Two cocktails particularly showcased Cosima’s range behind the bar.
The Estivo ($13), a recent addition, was extremely bright, like a necessary antidote for summer’s hottest nights. With its use of Uncle Val’s Gin and tonic, I expected a fancier version of a bar standard, but it was more than that. The inclusion of Charm City Meadworks’ Basil Lemonworks mead and a housemade peppercorn simple syrup revealed an unmistakable layer of complexity with subtle notes both spicy and sweet. (Consider that a wordy way of saying it was perplexing and delightful in equal measure.)
The other, the Arancina ($12), has become a fan favorite in recent months, Starks said — and it was easy to see (and taste) why. Where the Estivo was a citrus-filled pick-me-up, the Arancina feels like it should be lingered over, like a fine Old Fashioned.
And again, the cocktail demonstrated Starks’ deft touch when it comes to construction. On paper, the flavors were familiar: Buffalo Trace bourbon, Maraschino liqueur and Amaro Sabilla, finished with an orange peel. But the overall marriage of the ingredients resulted in a well-balanced cocktail of bitter and sweet flavors. The amaro’s honey and coffee notes bolstered the drink to tell-your-friends status.
As any good bar does, minor tweaks have been made since Cosima’s opening. Starks said those changes — like adding more Scotch options and less-pricy wines — have come from customer feedback and staff observations. The cocktail menu will shift when the weather cools, but Starks said she’ll also keep obvious winners, like the Arancina.
Regardless of how the final menu turns out, I left Cosima eager to return because at each turn, the staff showcased their efficiency, care and talent. Best of all, it wasn’t stuffy — a remarkable feat given the restaurant’s sleek design. So if finding the obscure Cosima leads to a temporary headache, take a deep breath and find that orange arrow. It’ll be worth the hassle soon enough.