Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Chef's Table onboard Caribbean Princess

We all have our reasons we love to cruise. For me, besides the exciting ports of call, it's being wined and dined and letting someone else do the cooking and cleaning for a week or more. I spent a week on the Caribbean Princess sailing to New England and Canada back in September. I have sailed Princess Cruise Lines several times, but passed on an opportunity I will never turn down again, The Chef's Table.

For the cost of $75 per person diners are treated to an unforgettable and delicious experience. The meal is specially prepared by the head chef himself. I had been reluctant in the past to pay that fee, but after this experience will gladly pay it again and again.

Our evening began with an invitation to meet Maitre D' Giuseppe Franchina outside the International Cafe on deck 5. We were then given lab coats and escorted through the dining room into the Galley. Giuseppe introduced us to Executive Chef Antonio Cereda. This is where the fun began. A select staff began pouring us champagne and bringing out appetizers one after another. Each appetizer was specially prepared only for us by Chef Cereda. They included caviar, salmon tartar and king crab margaritas to name a few. We spent about 45 minutes in the galley before being escorted to a special section of the dining room set up just for the Chef's Table group.

A word of advice, you are going to be served many delicious delicacies, so you may not want to eat much before you go, if anything at all. The food kept coming and each course was better than the last. Once seated at our table we were given our first course, baked parmesan dumplings. Next came my favorite course, raspberry ginger sherbet topped with Grey Goose Vodka. This helped cleanse the palate and prepare us for the incredible main course.

Chef Cereda then brought out a "trio of beef, veal and pork on a medieval spike". He flamed the meat for show and added taste. If that wasn't enough, Head Waiter Tomasz then placed a lobster tail on each of our plates. Did I mention that during this entire meal the wine was flowing? We were offered white, red and a dessert wine. By dessert we were all feeling the effects of the alcohol and had a great deal of fun with our last course. We were presented with an elegant dome which turned out to be made of spun sugar. Chef Cereda lifted the dome to reveal "iced amaretto strawberry parfait with fresh berries". The bowl securing this delicious dessert was also made of sugar. After devouring the parfait we all started to break apart and eat the sugar bowl.

Once the meal was complete a ship's photographer took a group picture and individual photos. He returned about 20 minutes later with our complimentary pictures and Chef Cereda and Maitre D' Franchina presented the ladies with roses and each couple signed cookbooks.

If you decide to take part in the Chef's Table sign up the second you arrive onboard your Princess ship. Only 12 people are selected per night and in our case they only offered the Chef's Table two nights. If you love being wined and dined don't pass up this truly incredible experience.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Two Blocks to Italian Treasures

When in Rome.....”. Well, you know the rest. The person that coined that phrase knew what they were talking about. This past summer I took a week long trip to Rome & Venice with my husband, Gregg. It was our present to ourselves before he returned to duty in Iraq. We traveled to Rome four years ago with our children. But this time we traveled solo and decided to put a new spin on our journey. We would challenge ourselves to stay 2 blocks away from the touristy food joints and experience Rome that way the Romans have been for centuries.

To test our theory we first ate at Piazza Navonna to get a reference on food quality and price. We sat at one one of those umbrella laden spots that charges 20 Euro for an appetizer of mozzarella and tomatoes. That wasn’t too bad, but the Pizza Margarita was unedible in our opinion and way over priced, 15 Euro each. Our pizza’s were thicker than the true Italian style pizza and the sauce didn’t have any flavor. After paying about 80 Euro for lunch we quickly dashed back to the hotel for some Pepto Bismol.

After recovering from that gastronomic experience we decided to begin our 2 block test. For dinner we walked two blocks from our hotel and came across a little Osteria on a small cobble stone road. We were greeted with “Buona Sera” and I tested my Italian and asked for a table for two. We were offered a cozy little table where one seat was still in the restaurant and the other was outside. I opted for the outside seat so I could check out the locals and look at the stars. It didn’t take long to see that our 2 block test was working. Once the menu arrived I found the mozzarella and tomato appetizer to be priced only 7 Euro. The quality was also much better. For dinner I had the sea bass with potatoes. It came with the potatoes thinly sliced over the fish and cooked to perfection. That dish only cost 18 Euro. Worth every penny according to my taste buds. Dinner that night, including an appetizer, two meals, two desserts and a bottle of Prosecco for 24 Euro, came to just less than what I had paid for lunch at Piazza Navonna. And I didn’t need any Pepto Bismol this time around.

It was on our third day in Rome that we came across my favorite Italian Treasure. “Aspettando il Pane”. Now, everyone that visits Rome will probably have their favorite restaurant, but to me this one out shined all of the rest we had visited. Gregg and I were still in full 2 block theory mode when we stumbled upon this new restaurant. Literally translated, “Aspettando il Pane” means “Waiting for the bread”. I found this funny since there was no waiting for anything at this gem of a restaurant. Service and food quality were incredible. We were greeted upon entry by the owner Samantha. We decided to eat outside. There were about half a dozen tables outside for anyone wishing to let the breeze keep them cool. Samantha returned a minute later with two complimentary plates of bruschetta. Now I have to admit that I have never liked tomatoes, only in sauce and soup form. But the bruschetta looked so appetizing, I figured it’s time to give my husband the shock of his life and try a tomato. I took one bite and was hooked. The bruschetta was covered in olive oil and basil, my two favorite things. I couldn’t believe I had been missing out all of my life on this delicious Italian appetizer. My husband was blown away that I cleaned my plate.
For my first course I ordered the crostini with mozzarella and prosciutto crudo. I rarely eat a dish that makes me moan with delight, but I think I embarrassed Gregg on this one. The Crostini was perfectly crispy with the melted mozzarella and prosciutto on top. When Gregg saw the twinkle in my eye, he knew we’d found our favorite restaurant in Rome, and the second course hadn’t even been served up yet.

For the second course, Gregg ordered the gnocchi with tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella while I ordered the traditional fare of spaghetti carbonara. My carbonara was the best carbonara I have had in Italy, and I have had a lot along our past journeys to the Amalfi Coast and Rome. The sauce was perfectly seasoned with pepper and thick enough to lap up with my bread. Gregg’s gnocchi had fresh chunks of mozzarella sitting on top. Just enough so that he could have small bites with just about every spoon full. We praised Samantha for the unforgettable meal and told her we would be back for dinner. Our entire lunch bill, including two appetizers, two meals, two cokes and a bottle of water came to 53 Euro. Money well spent I told Gregg. At Piazza Navonna the same meal would have probably cost us 100 + Euro.

We returned to “Aspettando il Pane” for dinner that night. Again, Samantha offered us the complimentary bruschetta and I quickly ordered another appetizer of crostini with prosciutto crudo. I had been dreaming about it all afternoon and couldn’t wait for another plate.

For dinner, I tried the scallopine with gorgonzola while Gregg opted for the scallopine a la limone. Each of our dishes came with three thinly sliced pieces of veal and a small salad. Mine was swimming in a creamy gorgonzola sauce while Gregg’s had a beautiful slice of lemon on top. Make sure you have some bread if you order the scallopine with gorgonzola sauce. Both dishes were cooked to perfection. The veal was thinly sliced, yet very juicy and perfectly seasoned. For dessert Samantha recommended a refreshing lemon drink to cleanse our palate. We both ordered a glass and Gregg finished his in record time. The lemon drink was a thicker, more cream based drink. It was the perfect ending to our meal. And again our dinner bill was less than what we had paid for lunch at Piaaza Navonna our first day.

If any story has to have a morale, I guess my story’s morale is to enjoy the tourist sites in Rome, but not the tourist eateries. They can be steep on your wallet and tough on your digestive system. Gregg and I spent a week in Italy and tested our 2 block theory every day and every evening. We encountered some of the most wonderful restaurants and were treated like family by restaurant owners, like Samantha.

So remember, as they say... “When in Rome”.