Food & Drink

Setting Sail

Donna Crivello embarks on a new restaurant concept in Woodberry.

On a crisp November day, Donna Crivello is dressed head-to-toe in black—“my uniform,” she calls it—but as she stands in her stunning Canton Cove kitchen, the light streaming through the windows reveals that she’s also lightly coated in a layer of white flour. The dust storm extends to most of the surfaces in her black-lacquered and cream-colored kitchen. For the co-owner of Donna’s Coffee Bar and Restaurant, this is all in a day’s work of testing recipes for her new Southern Italian restaurant Cosima. “My cabinets are covered,” she says, while assembling a fig-and-pear pizza with pomegranate glaze and Gorgonzola. “When I cook, I end up touching every one of my kitchen cabinets.”

Despite the fact that she has forgotten her proper pan in the car and has had to improvise by baking the pizza on the back of a panini press in its place, Crivello’s midday feast seems effortlessly assembled. Food arrives magically, masterfully, and fully formed, as the diminutive dynamo (measuring a mere 5 feet in height) oversees a frittata flecked with fennel, feta, spinach, and tomatoes; browns red potatoes roasted with rosemary and sprinkled with her own blend of salt; and pulls chocolate and hazelnut biscotti out of the oven, all in the name of a “simple lunch.”

Indeed, after standing at the stove for most of her 63 years—24 of them professionally at the helm of 10 or so different Donna’s (she has the burns on her forearms to prove it)—Crivello has left her mark on more than her clothes and cabinets. There’s very little of the landscape Crivello hasn’t touched. And while most who have been in the food industry for that long might dream of slowing down, the restaurateur is just catching her second wind with Cosima. It’s named after her beloved nonna and set inside the historic Mill No. 1, one in a cluster of mid-1800s mill buildings that were once the largest manufacturers of cotton duck and sailcloth in the world.

Back in the dining dark ages, Donna was the first of Charm City’s one-name wonders.

So why, after more than two decades, is the coffeehouse queen charting a new course? “I’ve always wanted to do this kind of restaurant,” says Crivello, who is married to educational consultant Peter Adams. “But I got swept up by the coffee bar/cafe thing. The timing of this just seemed right.”

Back in the dining dark ages—as recently as the early ’80s, that is—before Cindy (Wolf) and Spike (Gjerde)—Donna, who moved from Boston to Baltimore to work as the art director and food stylist for The Baltimore Sun, was the first of Charm City’s one-name wonders. “In Boston, there were these little cafes on every corner, but there was really nothing in Baltimore food-wise,” recalls Crivello. “I thought, ‘I have to do something, somewhere, somehow like that here.’”

The opportunity presented itself when, in 1991, friend and co-worker Elizabeth Large, then-food critic at The Sun, introduced Crivello to Alan Hirsch, a fellow foodie and co-founder of City Paper. “When we met, we couldn’t stop talking about food,” says Crivello. “Alan had the coffee idea. I had the fresh European-style cafe concept where you could have salads and great breads and pastries. We felt like there was this major void to be filled. There was the Bun Penny and that was [about] it.”

Later that year, during a period of mass layoffs, Crivello took a buyout from The Sun, clearing the coast for her and Hirsch to act on their idea. On November 5, 1992, Donna’s opened—all 1,200 square feet of it—inside the Park Plaza Building at 800 N. Charles Street in Mt. Vernon. The menu of Mediterranean fare, designer coffees, and fresh-baked bread served with olive oil for dipping was a novel concept and made the cafe an instant hit in the Mt. Vernon ’hood. “I’m not saying that I brought people out of the depths of culinary ignorance,” says Crivello with a laugh, “but, at the time, there were people who’d never heard of tapenade or focaccia.”

At the same time, Crivello and Co. experienced a learning curve of their own. “We had no idea what we were doing,” she admits, recalling that the space was so tight, that the telephone often fell off the wall into the mixer. “We hired some people to put stenciling on the windows and on that same day, we opened for business.” While Crivello was busy broadening Baltimoreans’ taste buds, behind-the-scenes, the operation was completely seat-of-the-pants. “We didn’t even know we were doing dinner until 5 o’clock on our first night, when a customer asked, ‘Do you do dinner?’” recalls Hirsch. “And Donna’s mother said, ‘Sure, we do dinner,’ so Donna ran down the street and bought some pasta and tomatoes—that’s literally how we started doing dinner.” Chimes in Crivello, “From that point on, it was crazy busy, and people lined up out the door to come in.”

Despite the trial-and-error approach, Donna’s thrived and other locations quickly followed in Towson and Charles Village, as well as outlets inside The Baltimore Museum of Art, University of Maryland Medical Center, and four locations inside Bibelot bookstores. But by the early 2000s, after a string of successes, Bibelot went bankrupt, and Crivello and Hirsch fell on tough times. “It was devastating,” says Hirsch. “We probably should have declared bankruptcy, too.” Another blow to the business was a fire in 2010 that severely damaged the original Mt. Vernon coffee bar. “At the time, we thought we would replace Donna’s with something more ambitious in the same space, but it was too expensive,” says Hirsch. “Cosima is, in part, an outgrowth of the original Donna’s burning down—what we never got to do.”

These days, though only one Donna’s remains, and despite fire and bankruptcy, Crivello has never forgotten why she took to the table in the first place. “I love thinking about food,” she says. “When I was doing the food styling for The Sun, there was something so great about letting food show up on its own—the sun hits a berry that’s wet, the olive oil glistens on a fig. Through it all, I never stopped loving it.”

Though she majored in early childhood education at Boston State College and went on to study graphic design, Crivello fantasized about opening a restaurant. “My mother is a great cook, and she always wanted to have her own cafe called Rosie’s Cafe,” says Crivello. “A space became available in Revere, MA, where I grew up, and she said to my dad, ‘Joe, I want to open my own restaurant,’ but my father said, ‘no,’ so she didn’t do it.”

While her mother’s dreams were dashed, Crivello came to share her mother’s passion for the plate. (In a surprise twist, her dad actually worked as a host at Donna’s Cross Keys and other locations for years, while her mother ran the food and helped in the kitchen.) “I got that gene that my mother has,” says Crivello. “For years, I had wanted to open my own restaurant.”

And although she took a few cooking lessons here and there, most of what she gleaned was from watching her mother and Italian relatives cook in their home kitchens. “I watched my mother make the sauces and the gravy and the meatballs, and my father’s mother, Cosima, always made ravioli on Sundays,” she says. “In my head, I have this image of her going into her bedroom on a Sunday. In a dark room, she kept a white sheet on the bed to spread out rows and rows of these little white pillows of ravioli.”

“She watched closely,” recalls Crivello’s mother, Rosemarie, who has passed along old family recipes like pasta fagioli, braciola, and zeppole for Cosima’s menu. “I guess observing made it all sink in.”

With Cosima, Crivello hopes to make more memorable meals, while also helping to interpret a little-known cuisine. “People don’t really know what true Sicilian food is,” she says. “Even the Sicilians in the U.S. don’t really know. Sicily was invaded and occupied by lots of different cultures from the Greeks and North Africans and Arabs, and everyone who occupied the land brought things that no other parts of Italy seemed to have—the agrodolce [a sweet vinegar sauce], the oranges, lemons, and almonds. I hope I can do it justice.”

“People don’t really know what true Sicilian food is. Even the Sicilians in the U.S. don’t know.”

Clearly, Crivello has what it takes to please even the most discerning critics. “She was one of the few people who wasn’t afraid to cook for the restaurant critic,” says Large. “No one else ever invited me over for dinner. I remember two early meals, in particular. One was a pasta with roasted vegetables over it. I had never had anything like it, and it was delicious. The other was a variation of a classic Italian Christmas Eve dinner, pared down a bit, with guests bringing other dishes. But the fresh salmon, huge shrimp, pasta with a light tomato sauce, great bread—those contributions of hers I still remember.”

In late December, prior to the grand opening, the excitement is palpable. Situated on the backside of Mill No. 1, in an idyllic courtyard that resembles a piazza, with the swift currents of the Jones Falls river passing by, the restaurant’s setting could easily be mistaken for a tiny Italian town. When Hirsch initially saw a photo of the spot, he told their business partner, Judith Golding, (also a partner at Donna’s), “That’s bullshit, it’s been Photoshopped.” Says Hirsch: “I said, ‘I’ve been in Baltimore my whole life. I don’t know this space.’” But when Golding encouraged him to go see it for himself, he was impressed. “It’s magical,” he admits.

As the trio gets ready to open in February, they proudly show off the space that’s a great mix of modern and historic. A steel sculpture over the bar made by Woodberry’s Gutierrez Studios echoes the original steel girders. The brick pizza oven has been retrofitted into the site’s original chimney, and the blend of materials—marble counters and stone floors—mingle marvelously with the historic fieldstone walls. At 5,700 square feet, this is the restaurateur’s largest venture yet. As workers ready the 12-burner range and put the finishing touches on the space, for Crivello, it’s the culmination of a career. “You have this excitement about it,” she says, “but it’s like when you want to have a dinner party and you think it’s a great idea, and there’s 10 minutes to go, and you still haven’t taken a shower.”

Regardless of opening-day jitters, Crivello couldn’t be happier about her new spot. “I can’t imagine what else I would do from here,” she says. “This space has the pizza oven I’ve wanted for years and years. I’m with great people, I’m right on the water, I’m in an old building—just like the first Donna’s in Mt. Vernon, which had old brick, and stone, and the original wood. I’ve come full circle.”