Like the chefs Mario, Giada and Duff, Baltimoreans know Donna, as in Crivello, by her first name. She first shook up our taste buds in the early 1990s with roasted vegetables, tapenade and other Mediterranean dishes at her restaurant, Donna's Coffee Bar, in Mount Vernon.
Several Donna's restaurants have come and gone over the years, with one remaining in the Village of Cross Keys. Now Crivello is introducing us to Cosima, the namesake of her Sicilian grandmother and a new Southern Italian restaurant in the restored Mill No. 1 near Hampden. (Disclosure: I worked with Crivello when she was an art director at The Baltimore Sun more than 20 years ago.)
The collaboration with longtime restaurant partners Alan Hirsch and Judith Golding is a labor of love for Crivello, who honors her family's cooking with recipes such as tripe with spicy tomato sauce, meatballs with ricotta and sfingi, Sicilian doughnuts with cinnamon sugar.
Cosima (pronounced KOH-sih-mah) is located near the city end of winding Falls Road, and you might need guidance on your first visit. Look for a prominent sign at the driveway entrance to guide you down a steep, curving road. Don't be intimidated. At the bottom, there is free valet parking.
The restaurant is housed in a former boiler room with soaring ceilings that has been painstakingly updated with a beautiful modern bar, reclaimed wood tables, banquettes and a wood-fired oven. It keeps the ambiance of its former use with the original brick and stone walls and parts of the boiler machinery.
There's upstairs seating for diners, which can be booked for private parties for about 50 people. The outdoor terrace, in the shadow of the Jones Falls Expressway, overlooks a scenic portion of the Jones Falls waterway and could make a great escape on a warm evening for a meal and drinks. The terrace is expected to open in mid-April, weather permitting.
Cosima focuses on Italian wines, and if the list has you stumped, your server will ask you what you like and make suggestions. We were pleased with our red, a Tormaresca Primitivo from the Puglia region of Southern Italy.
The restaurant also serves several interesting cocktails. We enjoyed the Spritz, a blend of Aperol, prosecco and soda with a twist, served in an elegant, retro-chic coupe glass. And then there are a dozen beers to suit your needs.
The menu is divided into primis, first plates to share; hot and cold small plates; pizzas; pastas; fish and meat dishes; and desserts. Dishes are listed in Italian, but there's no need to learn the language. The English descriptions explain each item, as will your server.
Our genial waiter was a well-informed guide to the menu and kept our courses flowing at appropriate intervals. He started us off with a fun amuse-bouche, courtesy of the kitchen. The small bite — a thinly sliced, roasted potato topped with rosemary, Gorgonzola dolce and crisp prosciutto bits — promised good things to come.
And they did. We began our feast with several appetizers, including an excellent caponata or Sicilian eggplant relish spilling over a nest of greens glistening with olive oil and served with chickpea fritters.
A roasted cauliflower is a must-order. A tender head of the vegetable is finished in the wood-fired oven, singeing the florets to a pleasantly caramelized state. Dip the nuggets into a bright-green salsa verde to add zest.
The baby octopus salad was a big hit, with the grilled tentacles, potato chunks, red peppers and capers amid greens tinged with a lemon anchovy vinaigrette. In another dish, we adored the grilled sardines scattered atop greens and buoyed by a piquant onion agrodolce sauce.
We couldn't resist another sardine dish, this one featuring the tiny fish with long threads of hearty bucatini pasta tossed with raisins, pine nuts, fennel and tomatoes for a pleasantly salty-savory combo.
Another pasta dish showcased house-made cuttlefish-ink fettuccine as a nest for a grilled half-lobster. The kitchen notches the claw shell, but we had trouble breaking it open until our server came to the rescue with a cracking tool.
We would eat any of our entrees again, but the one that really got our attention was the slow-cooked tomato sauce with braised pork, fennel sausage and pancetta over stone-ground polenta. The dish resonated with a rich, intoxicating flavor.
Cosima's pizzas offer a slightly charred thin crust cooked over fire that serves as a superb base for the toppings. There are three on the menu: a daily special, a simple pizza with mozzarella and charred tomatoes, and a fig pizza with Gorgonzola, broccoli rabe and ribbons of prosciutto.
We tried the fig pizza and admired its collection of ingredients. It's a shareable dish that works as an appetizer or entree.
Crivello goes back to her past for Cosima's desserts, especially the sfingi, which she remembers making with her family. The small, round doughnuts are light and airy. They're brought to the table warm and then added to a paper bag with cinnamon sugar by your server, who shakes it until they are coated.
The house cannoli has depth with a lovely, fluffy filling of candied orange ricotta cheese. The chocolate hazelnut torte is a luscious wedge designed for the chocolate fiends in the dining room.
We were partial to the rustic crostata, a flaky pastry containing apples and pears. We appreciated its homey simplicity.