While exploring Italy via river cruise, Michele Peterson found inspiration in culinary creations throughout the land.
“Look for polpo that’s pale and tender to the touch,” said Executive Chef Daniel Tricu as he held up a tangle of octopus, its tentacles glistening purple in the sunlight. I leaned forward to take a closer look.
Along with my husband and a small group of fellow cruise passengers, I was exploring Venice’s famed Rialto Market with the executive chef of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s River Countess. It was a complimentary excursion on our “Splendors of Italy” voyage along Northern Italy’s Po River and land tour of Florence and Rome.
Back on River Countess, we enjoyed the octopus, carpaccio-style. I pulled a notebook from my purse and checked off polpo from an extensive list. It was our first trip to Italy, so in addition to seeing the country’s artistic and archaeological wonders, my personal itinerary included tasting 150 Italian dishes, from lamb abbacchio to zabaglione custard.
We awoke the next morning to the chiming of church bells from Chiesa di San Sebastiano, a 16th-century Venetian church. Peering out our French balcony, frothy cappuccino in hand, I watched as a vaporetto (water taxi) glided past on the Venetian Lagoon.
At the Piazza San Marco we wove past hundreds of people — bypassing the queues courtesy of our Uniworld guide — to marvel at the opulent 14th-century Doge’s Palace, before being led through its secret passageways. Later, we were treated to an extraordinary moment: an exclusive, after-hours tour of St. Mark’s Basilica. We entered the hushed, empty church, an 11th-century masterpiece of Italian-Byzantine architecture, and learned about St. Mark the Evangelist as lights illuminated the jewel-studded altarpiece.
Dinners most evenings took place in the ship’s elegant Savoy Restaurant amidst a luxurious baroque décor that felt formal yet inviting. Our boutique-sized ship held just 130 guests, meaning menus could be seasonally inspired and locally sourced.
“Dishes made with local ingredients are marked ‘L’ on the menu,” explained our waiter, who carefully took note of any food preferences and allergies.
Wine was poured freely as we perused the menu each night, selecting Italian classics such as spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams), rich osso buco Milanese (veal shanks braised in white wine) and a peachy Bellini sorbet inspired by the famous Italian cocktail.
The gems of Northern Italy were revealed as we sailed the Po River to the port of Polesella. In Padua, once home to scholars Galileo and Copernicus, we used our free time to relax over steaming cups of crema di menta cioccolate at the famed Caffè Pedrocchi. Another highlight was a hands-on workshop where we folded tortellini at the historic Cantina Bentivoglio in Bologna.
The pleasures of ship life wrapped up each day. The Serenity River Spa, live music with dancing and even an operatic performance made it feel like a floating luxury hotel. We often opted simply to spend the evening on the ship’s Sun Deck sipping limoncello liqueur while watching the twinkling stars scattered in the inky sky. With its sumptuous blue-and-white decór accented by glinting mirrors and rich tapestries, our welcoming stateroom was equipped with a handcrafted queen bed, gleaming marble bath and spacious built-in closet.
Even more discoveries awaited on the land portion of our vacation. The softly rolling hills, ample legroom on our motor coach and an al fresco lunch made the short drive to Florence a pleasure. There, we indulged in long-awaited excursions to the Uffizi Gallery and crossed the Arno River to the Palazzo Pitti. A stop in the wine mecca of Greve unveiled the culinary charms of Castello di Verrazzano, an 8th-century villa where we toured an ancient wine cellar and tasted local chianti, extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Our culmination in Rome included excursions to all of the essential sites — the Colosseum, Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. The unexpected culinary discoveries were just as inspirational, like seppia risotto infused with cuttlefish ink and carciofi alla giudia, a deep-fried artichoke originating from Rome’s Jewish community.
Exhilarated by our immersion into Italy’s culture, we bid our fellow travelers arrivederci, vowing to return someday to continue our gastronomic exploration both by water and by land.
Michele Peterson is a Toronto-based writer whose work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including Fodorís Travel, WestJet Magazine, Air Canadaís enRoute and Taste & Travel Magazine.