June 27 2011
The Gannet is not really a cruising sort of bird, preferring to traverse the oceans under his own steam, pausing only to nibble an occasional fish at mealtimes. However, the prospect of a cruise from Genoa to Palermo (stopping en route in Naples), and getting someone else to catch my dinner for me, strangely appealed. The Gannet may love his fish, but he is also prone to bouts of laziness.
It was the idea of a gastronomic restaurant on board MSC Splendida that attracted me: a restaurant whose menu is overseen by the famous Italian chef Mauro Uliassi. The idea of travelling in some comfort – with a charming butler called Denis, actually – also piqued my interest.
Years ago, food afloat was invariably awful: the dreaded hotel buffet writ large, warmed-over pasta and dodgy salads, gelatine-stiff chocolate mousse and a bottle of plonk if you’re lucky. Not so on MSC Splendida, I am pleased to say, although its buffet is enormous and there are some rather incongruous options. A Tex-Mex lunch while moored in the Bay of Naples, anyone? The scale is impressive: the kitchens get through six and a half tonnes of fresh seafood a week, and 43 tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables. It makes the average Parisian brasserie look like a little “mom-and-pop” outfit.
L’Olivo is the posh restaurant on MSC Splendida: an almost satirically Mediterranean dining room on the top deck, its staff willing but occasionally lacking in knowledge – one of the waiters tried to persuade me that Roquefort was a Dutch goat’s cheese. The food was actually rather good: a nicely judged tartare of salmon with radishes, for example; a clever octopus “terrine”, sliced wafer-thin and tossed with rocket and basil oil; and tagliatelle made on board, dressed with queen scallops, mussels and some sweet cherry tomatoes, no doubt grown in the soils of either Vesuvius or Etna, our volcanic companions on the journey. Pudding is perhaps best enjoyed, in true Italian fashion, at the ship’s gelateria, where the display of ice creams and sorbets rivals any in Naples.
The real star of the restaurant, however, is Leonardo Spreca, the sommelier, whose enthusiasm for wine is evident in his lovely list. It includes some classic French wines (Château Figeac, for instance), but also some terrific Italian bottles: a robust Brunello, a steely, fragrant Falanghina, and a richly tannic Sagrantino were particularly fine.
As our hulking monster of a ship bore silently down on the Sicilian coast, wisps of early-morning mist hanging over a sunlit Palermo, the feeling of guilt at the indolence of my journey was supplanted by the classic dilemma with which the Gannet struggles on most mornings: where to go for lunch? I actually found somewhere rather good, but more of that another time, when the Gannet is back on dry land.