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Tomatoes as red as my lipstick.  Octopus as tender as deep sleep.  Herbs as aromatic as the air moments after a downpour.  These are measly attempts at describing the vibrancy of the foods consumed on this culinary tour throughout Greece and Southern Italy. On and off Oceania's Riviera ship, incredible meals were devoured during a seven-day journey through one of the greatest food epicenters on earth - the Mediterranean. Traveling from Athens to Rome, making stops along the way, we experienced guided chef tours, multi-course dinners, and the soul of the land through scenic views and historical landmarks.  Many thanks to our incredible Oceania hosts, Franck Garanger: Fleet Corporate Chef/Culinary Development, Alban Gjoka: Senior Executive Chef and Kellie Evans: Culinary Education Program Instructor, for leading us through the expansive culinary landscape and for dining with us at each of the Riviera’s seven restaurants.  Losing my cruise ship virginity was nothing short of thrilling and to make it even more significant, I did it with my best friend, GiGi Dubois (GiGi Eats Celebrities).

We first dined in Athens the evening before our ocean departure.  It’s clear the city has felt the effects of the country's economic crisis - building after building is polluted with graffiti.  It's a little sad to see, but dinner at Varoulko Seaside offers some grace and heightens hopes.  This waterfront restaurant showcases the culinary soul that is still thriving in Ancient Greece.  Chef Lefteris Lazarou opened the restaurant in 1987.  "Lazarou was the first chef in Greece to cook a seafood menu at a fine dining restaurant and to introduce the public to less known and previously neglected types of fish." - USA Today

The restaurant merges into the harbor, creating a very intimate setting for diners and a pleasing guarantee that the coming meal will be incredibly fresh. Bread rolls were served warm.  They were perfect.  The quality of bread abroad always astounds me.  Next came a four-course dinner of sea-based dishes; Fish Soup with Vegetables and Rockfish Broth, Grilled Cuttlefish with Caramelized Lentils and Orange Sauce, Orzo Cooked with Prawns, Limnio Wine, Dried Hot Red Pepper Flakes and Parmesan Cheese and finally the Catch of the Day with Baby Grilled Vegetables.  The Cuttlefish and Orzo were my personal favorites. These dishes had a few simple and delicious ingredients, but the overall integrity to showcase the seafood itself was achieved.  

In the morning, we had time to see some of the famous sites of Athens before heading to the port.  The Acropolis is the most obvious landmark, sitting high on the hill overlooking the city.  We did not have time for a full tour sadly, but we did visit the Acropolis Museum and got as close to the Acropolis as possible.  We also got to explore the temple of Zeus before our afternoon embarkment.

Once aboard The Riviera, our new home, something inside of me moved.  It wasn’t because of the ever-so-slight feel of the Mediterranean’s current beneath me, it was something that danced through my head, heart and gut warning that after this voyage I would never be the same.  It was something cosmic.  The reality knocked loudly in my face -- we would spend our days exploring new cities and our evenings enjoying incredible restaurants while gliding through solid aqua clouds.  How was I so lucky to be gifted this? I didn’t know, but whatever the reason, I was extremely grateful.

During our first night, just as the sun was epically setting, we dined at Toscana. I smiled at the beautiful Versace dish wear in front of me.  The meal began with the olive oil trolley — a cart filled with olive oils from various regions of Greece and Italy to be sampled with bread.  Don’t mind if I do!  The menu offered a variety of traditional dishes, Lasagna Bolagnese, Osso Buco, Risotto — but I went with the evening’s special for my main course, Gnocchi with Porcini Mushroom and Truffle. To get my juices flowing, I started with the Minestrone Soup and Beef Carpaccio.  Two simple offerings, but if done right, there are few things better. 

The Minestrone was the best I had ever had.  This age-old peasant soup had the richest broth complete with the flavors of the garden, carrots, onions and tomatoes.  It was laced with fresh pesto and also had cubes of soft boiled potato. It’s thin broth was hearty and infused my veins.

The Carpaccio, crowned with aged Parmigiano Reggiano, Arugula and Lemon-Infused Extra Virgin Olive Oil, was as it should be, pink in color and soft as white sand as it hit my tongue, disintegrating into sweet, saltiness. 

The Gnocchi, was rich, as to be expected.  It nearly sent me over the deck’s edge just after the first bite.  Creamy and decadent, the truffles romanced me as they always do.

I must also point out that I had the best bottle of red wine I have ever had in my life at this dinner. Not another glass during the whole trip could knock it from the pedestal.  What really lit me up, was that it was from Argentina!  The 2013 bottle of Enamore Bodega Renacer was the smoothest tasting red wine I had ever experienced.  Everyone at the table was moaning about it, not just me.  It was an epic blend of Malbec, Merlot, Bonarda and Cabernet Franc produced in the Amarone style.  This means that the grapes are partially dry when they are vinified.  It was exquisite and paired perfectly with the creamy parmesan, truffle and earthy mushroom in my Gnocchi. 

I had to end with a classic Italian dessert, Tiramisu.  It’s not one of my favorite go-to desserts, but when I dine at an Italian restaurant, I always like to taste it.  It was served in a perfect circle of sweet Mascarpone Cream and layers of espresso soaked cake, sprinkled with fine dark cocoa. If only every day of my life ended on this lovely a note! 

MORE TO COME! 

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