Friday, March 27, 2015

Off to the Caribbean on MSC Cruises

I have been on many different cruises on various cruise lines. I have to admit, however, that I knew nothing about MSC Cruises. As soon as I did, I was immediately intrigued at the concept of this European line who had one ship in the U.S. I was also fascinated with their Yacht Club idea which gives a luxury “ship within a ship” experience.

It didn’t take me long to say “yes” and before long Mom and I were off packing to head off on the MSC Divina.

The ship leaves out of Miami for the Caribbean, while the other ships of this Italian owned line travel throughout the world. (MSC is in the process of bringing two additional ships to Miami in the next few years.) It’s a fairly large vessel with 1,637 cabins that can hold nearly 4,000 passengers.

I’d like to say that the check-in process was all quick and easy, but there was a bit of confusion as to where the MSC Divina Yacht Club passengers were to go. Once that was settled and we were in the right place, we had champagne in our hands and a butler escorting us to our cabin before most of the ship had even finished registering.

Our room was within the exclusive Yacht Club section, which has its own specialty restaurant, lounge for breakfast and cocktail hours, a private pool area, and butler service.

We were in a Deluxe Suite for guests with disabilities (my mom uses a medical scooter). It was quite spacious with a European king bed, a coach, desk, dresser, closets, and a bathroom with a shower (the same room that wasn’t handicap accessible had a bath tub too).

The room also had a television, wireless internet, a complimentary mini bar, and comfortable robes, something all guests in the Yacht Club get regardless of the MSC Cruise they take. 

Mom and I didn’t have very long to get settled before we had the law mandated muster drill. After that was done, we unpacked and got ready for dinner.

The main dining room for the Yacht Club guests on the MSC Divina is actually Le Muse Restaurant. It was a bit tricky to get to, but our butler showed the way for us that first night.

Le Muse was nothing like I expected. It didn’t resemble any cruise main dining room I had ever seen. Instead, it looked like a quaint café in Italy, both in size and décor.

The service at Le Muse was perfect and we were instantly made to feel welcome with glasses of Prosecco.

As MSC Yacht Club members we were given complimentary beer, wine, and cocktails in this restaurant, as well as our lounge and pool area.

The wine selection was fantastic, but they didn’t hesitate if we didn’t happen to like the dinner choice to bring something else.

This list included: Caesar Salad, plain or with shrimp or chicken; a beef and chicken vegetable soup; pasta with fresh tomatoes and basil; an Angus beef filet; and a salmon filet in dill sauce.

The dinner menu gave us a choice of appetizers, salads, soups, main course and dessert. If we didn’t want something from the selection of the day, we could always chose to pick something from the “Alternative Choice” menu.

I started with a creamy and satisfying tomato soup and Mom enjoyed the Caesar salad with shrimp.

For a main course, I thought the Pumpkin Risotto with truffle and parmesan was amazing. Mom decided to keep in healthy the first night and went for the salmon with grilled vegetables.

We definitely indulged on the desserts. We were unable to resist when they came around with a fruit and cheese cart that rivaled some that I have seen in France.

It was followed by a delectable chocolate and almond brownie covered in a vanilla sauce for me and a mouth-watering coconut ice cream topped with bittersweet chocolate foam for Mom.  

After dinner, we decided to skip the show and head back to the cabin. We were both exhausted from the long day, and glad the next day was at sea so we would have plenty of time to explore the MSC Divina.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Tastes of Chicago from Eataly to Godfrey

I enjoy attending events in Chicago whenever possible and I’ve learned to stuff my trips to get in as much as possible each time I go. When I received an invitation to a wine pairing luncheon I had just the excuse I needed to plan what would be a delicious trip.

The first stop of the day was for the luncheon. It was at Baffo, the Mario Batali restaurant that’s a part of the Eataly plaza in Chicago. 

The meal was being paired with Consorzio Carignano del Sulcis wines.

I didn’t know much about this region on the island of Sardinia, nor had I tasted this red grape. It sounded like a perfect accompaniment to Batali’s Italian specialties and it certainly was.

I brought my friend Lisa along and it was a fun event as we learned about the region and tasted some incredible food at Baffo:

Salumi Misti with Gnocco Fritto with 2011 Calasetta Tupei
This antipasto and fried bread worked well with this rich wine.

Farfalle con Gambieri (without the shrimp for me) with 2010 Mesa Buio Buio
Bowtie pasta, with pancetta and tomato, was a good accompaniment to my favorite wine of the day.

Pappardelle al Ragu with 2011 Barrua AgriPunica
I love this wide pasta and the meat ragu picked up the peppery wine notes.

Costolette D’Agnelo with 2009 Is Sardus Pater
An interesting wine with a slightly sweet finish complimented the lamb chops with eggplant.

Formaggi Sardi with 2008 Terre Brune Santadi
The cheese and jam matched this wine, filled with dark fruit like blueberry and blackberry.

After the luncheon, we went next door and met Valeria Fanelli, from the Public Relations department of Eataly Chicago for a private tour.

To say I was impressed with Eataly would be a gross understatement. I expected a gourmet food store and instead felt like we landed in the middle of Rome!

We knew immediately this wasn’t going to be an ordinary tour so we made our first stop for cappuccinos at one of the most complex espresso machines I’d ever seen. The coffee was as good as it looks and it reenergized us for the walk through the two floors of this food and drink mecca.

The premise behind Italy is not only finding gourmet and unusual items, but getting them as fresh as possible. On these premises they make bread, cheese, sausage, pastries, and even beer.

The selections of wine, olive oils, and pastas (including freshly made varieties) are the largest I’ve ever seen, and the produce and meat aisles contained unique items.  

Whenever possible Eataly obtains its produce, meat, and cheese as close to the location as it can.

You can shop for cooking or bring prepared food home from Eataly, or enjoy it there with a glass of wine if you’d like, in the various areas such as the pizza, pasta, or sandwich bars.

Before Lisa and I left Eataly we sampled some cheeses from the Fromaggi section. We picked up some cheese, bread, and sauces before leaving. It was easy to get exactly what we wanted as the staff is very well trained and extremely helpful.

From Eataly we headed to the Godfrey Hotel to check in for the night. It’s a fairly new contemporary addition to Chicago and the rooms are quite nice. They also include many extra amenities, such as complimentary Wi-Fi, bathrobes, and L'Occitane bath products.

We had a bit of time to relax and change before we headed to the IO Urban Rooftop Lounge. The weather was too cool for the retractable roof to be open, but we could clearly see that this modern and comfortable lounge would be more spectacular when the top was removed.

The views of Chicago from Godfrey’s rooftop are spectacular and, with a total of 15,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor space, it would be difficult for this place to feel crowded.

We indulged in the small plates from the menu, trying a little bit of everything. The menu does change seasonally, but you can’t go wrong with anything here.

A few of the items that stay on the Godfrey Rooftop menu for you to try are the Signature Black Truffle Fries, the Lamb Lollichops, and the Prime Beef Sliders. You’ll also want to give the special spreads and risotto a try, but save room for dessert – they certainly know how to satisfy a sweet tooth.

I’d also have to give a shoutout to the handcrafted cocktails here, including a spectacular mojito.

Lisa and I spent a few hours enjoying the Urban Rooftop at the Godfrey for hours before we retired for the night, full and relaxed from another Chicago outing.