Chef Spotlight: Donna Crivello

From her earliest memories, Chef Donna Crivello has always loved food. Cooking and eating were very much a part of her family life growing up in Boston, surrounded by the traditional Southern Italian cooking of her grandmothers, aunts and mother. In the early 1980s, she first traveled to Sicily to learn more about her grandparents and the "cucina" of Sicily. After years as an elementary school teacher, designer at The Baltimore Sun and part-time catering business owner, Donna met business partner Alan Hirsch. In 1992 they opened Donna’s, an Italian-inspired café and coffee bar in Mount Vernon. Soon, they opened two more Donna’s restaurants. While today only Donna’s at the Village of Cross Keys is still around, the chef is reinventing her 25-year-old brand with Cosima, which opened in 2016 in a former textile mill. Named for Donna’s Sicilian grandmother, Cosima offers southern Italian-influenced dishes like lobster on squid-ink pasta and pizza from a wood-burning oven. Sitting down to a meal served on a table made from repurposed wood under strands of lights next to the picturesque Falls River, you just may think you’re in Italy.

Get to Know Donna Crivello

Culinary contributor Amy Langrehr sat down with Chef Crivello to chat about food, family and what’s great about Baltimore.

How would you describe Baltimore’s food scene?
DC: I think it’s pretty hot. I mean, you can list so many places you want to go. And we have so many locally owned places. It’s amazingly elevated thanks to people like Spike Gjerde (Woodberry Kitchen) and Cindy Wolf and Tony Foreman (Charleston) for starters. I’m continuously amazed that Cosima is always so busy. We’re just at the one-year mark now. We have so many regulars and still—even a year in—we have so many first-time guests.

Tell us about Cosima’s cuisine and ambience.
DC: As our guests drive down the cobblestone driveway and enter Cosima, we want them to feel as though they’re in a rustic restaurant in Southern Italy like in my grandmother Cosima’s hometown of Termini Imerese. We fell in love with all of the stone and brick and wood. You really get a feel for being in Sicily. If you’ve been there, you can feel it. The town my grandmother Cosima was from is so wonderful. Everyone was always so warm and inviting. And the food is often surprising. We love the remnants of the old boiler house in Mill No. 1. The modern and rustic works together, just like old buildings you might find in Italy.

Was food a big part of your upbringing?
DC: Yes, it was. A big part. Mainly because of my Italian family’s gatherings. My mother and my grandmother, Cosima, always cooked and invited everyone over every Sunday. I remember looking into my grandmother’s bedroom and seeing ravioli she had just made, sitting atop a fresh white sheet, drying.

What are some of your favorite things to make?
DC: Pasta, definitely. I’m not usually cooking on the line most nights, but I do make all of the pastas. I like to work with my chefs to come up with pasta dishes together. It’s fun to get creative together. One other dish I love to make is Timpano. You know the movie, Big Night? It’s what they made in that. It’s penne pasta, sausage and other meats, hard-cooked eggs, broccoli rabe, cheese, more meat, more cheese, all piled in layers in a drum. You cut into it and serve it by the slice. When I have family or friends over, I’ll make pasta—I cook with our grandkids. We make bread together.

What are some of your favorite restaurants in the city? Where would you take a chef visiting Baltimore?
DC: We live in Canton, and when Alma Cocina Latina opened, we felt like we had discovered it. We really love it. Such a good feeling being in there—the people, the space, the bar. It’s the best. Like a lot of chefs, I don’t really get out too much, but I like Sotto Sopra, La Cuchara. Tapas Teatro is consistently great. I really liked Colette. I love everything about Cinghiale. For out-of-town visitors, definitely Wit & Wisdom (at the Four Seasons), and for our beer and meat lovers, Parts & Labor, for sure.

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