“If you’re enjoying your lunch, do this,” says Damiano Olivieri our cruise director, as he puts his index finger on his cheek and wobbles his palm like a corkscrew.

“And if we love it?” asks a member of our group as we tuck into bowls of spaghetti alle vongole brimming with fresh, sweet clams.

“Fan yourself as though you’re swooning,” says Olivieri. “That gesture means it’s really delicious.”

Uniworld River Cruise of Italy

River Countess
Photo courtesy of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection

It’s just the start of our Uniworld 13-day itinerary (featuring an 8-day river ship cruise of Venice and a 5-day motor coach tour to Florence and Rome), but there’s already been a lot of swooning. Unlike my first cruise a decade earlier – when my teen daughters exhausted their onboard drink credits before we’d even left Athens – all of Uniworld’s European itineraries are fully all-inclusive. This means gourmet meals, all beverages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), shore excursions, entertainment and tipping are included in the fare.

The boutique-sized River Countess has won international awards for its cuisine, so in addition to a luxury itinerary with sightseeing highlights such as an after-hours tour of St. Mark’s Basilica and fast-track access to the Vatican Museum, guests can look forward to enjoying a wide range of regional Italian specialties. From abbacchio (crescent-shaped pasta) to zabaglione (marsala-soaked dessert), there’s lots to experience on this foodie-friendly journey of Italy.

Uniworld River Cruise of Italy

Stylish and locally-sourced cuisine aboard the River Countess
Photo: Michele Peterson

Eat Authentic (and often)

The epicurean adventure kicks off with a gala dinner in the River Countess’s elegant Savoy Restaurant. Set on the main Marco Polo Deck with panoramic views of the Venetian Lagoon, its luxurious Baroque décor is formal yet inviting. Unlike mega ships where provisioning for thousands of people can mean stockpiling goods, the River Countess holds just 132 guests in its 62 spacious staterooms and 4 suites. This means menus can be seasonally inspired and sourced from local producers.

“Dishes made with local ingredients are marked ‘L’ on the menu,” says our waiter, who carefully notes diners’ food preferences and allergies

Over the next few days our group enjoys Italian culinary classics such as Scaloppine di Vitello from Piedmont, rich Osso Buco Milanese and an inventive Bellini sorbet inspired by the famous Venetian cocktail.

On the ship’s spacious Sun Deck, a casual menu features prosciutto, salads and pizza. In Roman style, the pizza dough is rolled thin and topped sparingly with paper-thin parma ham and a tangle of basil to produce a light and crispy final product.

Market Gastronomy

No culinary pilgrimage to Italy would be complete without a market visit, so in Venice, guests are invited to join a walking tour of Rialto Market hosted by Uniworld’s Executive Chef Daniel Tricu. His shopping list includes polpo (octopus), arugula and tiny tomatoes, fixings for a salad. We arrive by private vaporetto (water taxi), gliding down the slate blue canals past Gothic palaces, busy gondolas and porters pushing towers of vegetables. No trucks or cars are permitted in Venice’s historic heart, so everything must be carted in.

Uniworld River Cruise of Italy

A bright and airy Category 1 stateroom
on the River Countess
Photo: Michele Peterson

“I know each owner personally,” says Chef Tricu, as we stop at a stall brimming with purple-fringed artichokes, shiny tomatoes and slender asparagus. Labels display each vegetable’s name, price and source but the vendors serve as enthusiastic ambassadors for their products. “Smell this basil,” says one, holding out a leafy branch of fragrant herbs.

Next up is the seafood section. With fish scales flying from fishmongers filleting flounder, mounds of mussels and rows of sardines so fresh they look ready to jump off the display, this is action-central.

We wrap up our market visit with flutes of Prosecco and cichetti, the Venetian equivalent to tapas, at a historic trattoria overlooking the Grand Canal.

Uniworld Cruises include premium wine, draft beer, cocktails and speciality liqueurs. So, that evening we sip limoncello on the River Countess’s terrace and watch as stars rise above the spire of San Giorgio Maggiore, a 16th century Benedictine church.

All-inclusive Excursions

Uniworld River Cruise of Italy

Postcard-worthy Venice is actually
a living, breathing city

Food also takes centre stage during excursions from the port of Polesella, on the Po River. Known by the ancient Romans as the Padus, Italy’s longest river stretches from the Alps to the Adriatic Sea and is an ideal base for exploring the scenic countryside. A top excursion for culinary enthusiasts is Bologna with its artisanal food shops packed with tortellini, balsamic vinegar and mortadella. A pasta-making workshop at Cantina Bentivoglio, a historic ristorante, wine bar and jazz club, offers a hands-on introduction to local traditions.

Other culinary highlights include a seafood lunch in the fishing village of Chioggia and a tutored wine tasting of ruby-red Chianti Classico Gran Selezione at Castello di Verrazzano, an 8th century Tuscan villa overlooking historic vineyards.

The itinerary concludes in the Eternal City with private tours of the Colosseum, the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica, each a memorable extravaganza of discovery. During our 13-day tour, we’ve marvelled at Michelangelo’s David in Florence’s Accademia Gallery, explored hidden passageways in Venice’s Doge’s Palace and devoured culinary specialties such as citrusy Cassata Siciliana cake, seppia (cuttlefish ink) risotto and tangy Val Taleggio cheese.

Exhilarated by our immersion into Italy’s culture and cuisine, we bid our fellow travellers goodbye while Damiano and the rest of the Uniworld team return to the River Countess to welcome the next group of hungry guests.

Travel Planner

Uniworld River Cruise of Italy

Glamorous lobby of the
River Countess makes it feel like a
floating luxury hotel
Photo: Michele Peterson

Itinerary: In 2016, Uniworld offers the Splendors of Italy on the River Countess ship in a 15-day itinerary featuring Milan to Rome via river cruise ship and luxury motor coach. Hotel accommodations (when not on the cruise ship) are luxurious, unique and well-located.  For information on daily itineraries, deck plans, shore excursions and pricing, contact your travel agent, call 800 733-7820, or visit uniworld.com.

Onboard: The Uniworld all-inclusive plan on the 132-guest River Countess includes luxury staterooms 151 sq. ft. (14 sq. meters), scheduled airport transfers, expertly hosted shore excursions (hosted by professional English-speaking local experts), onboard meals, unlimited beverages such as wine, cocktails, juices, espresso and soft drinks, all gratuities onboard and shore excursions, Wi-Fi, self-service laundry and more.

Uniworld River Cruise of Italy

River Countess cruises the Venetian Lagoon, Italy
Photo courtesy of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection