Dining aboard 'Royal Princess': This is not your mother's cruise food

Our contributor steps aboard the 'Royal Princess,' and sees cruise food in a new light

Cocktail hour

Every day I looked forward to the nightly occasion of cocktail hour. Each evening, after an intensive day of sightseeing, friends and I would gather in one of the Royal Princess' half-dozen options for libations to sip and compare notes about our experiences that day. Some nights a glass of bubbly, in the form of Nicolas Feuillatte, fit the bill; others a cocktail ranging from a classic like a whiskey sour to inventive margaritas (think strawberry and black pepper!) in the Outrigger bar (the perfect spot for sail-away) hit the spot. But no matter the beverage, the small bites from master chef Alfredo Marzi's kitchen were a star.  Decadent foie gras encased in tomato gelée, sweet and crunchy caramelized eggplant crisps, luscious ahi tuna in a cone, shark's fin wontons… the treats were unending. The only drawback was the temptation to fill up before dinner!

When in Italy (or not), you have to have gelato

Cruise ships and ice cream: yeah, yeah, we know about the soft serve by the pool. Royal Princess ups the ante with the first gelateria at sea. If you missed a gelato stop while on land at one of the Italian ports, no worries. Starting at $2.75 or with a punch of your coffee card ($30 for a 15-notch card) you can indulge in gelato in an array of flavors ranging from Nutella to dulce de leche. Made on-board, this is the real deal, too. So even if your itinerary is on the other side of the world from gelato's home, you won't want to miss this taste of Italy.  If your tastes run more toward crepes or sundaes, you're in luck, because the gelato shop offers them to boot.

Speaking of Italy

Did you travel thousands of miles to eat pizza? Actually, on board Royal Princess, it's a safe bet that you did. Neapolitan-style pizza — as close as you can get without getting off the ship in Naples — tempts at Alfredo's with a perfectly crisp crust. You might think you want to split one, but believe me: you'll want this one all for yourself. And with no additional charge, why not indulge? Be sure to try the Pizza Royal Princess pie with buffalo mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, Parma ham, and shaved Parmesan — and while you're at it, grab the Antipasto Assortito di Magro (with caprese and grilled vegetables) to start.

Sushi at sea

My go-to light meal when I'm consuming my weight daily in rich, decadent food is sushi. It makes a great break from French or Italian food, but I didn't expect to have my trusty fallback while at sea. But it was Royal Princess' Ocean Terrace to the rescue a few nights into the voyage. Overlooking the grand atrium, the small specialty shop serves up freshly-flown-in sushi in vibrant hues of salmon and tuna, not to mention caviar, smoked Balik salmon, and seafood tapas at à la carte pricing less than you'd find on land. Even kids liked this place, congregating at the sushi bars to watch the chefs in action. With the purchase of a drink (think chilled vodka, sake, or wine and cocktails) snacks like herring salad and bay shrimp salad at the Ocean Terrace are complimentary.

Crazy for crab

You're on the sea — what better place to tuck into a heaping plate of seafood? Fasten your oversized bibs at Royal Princess' Crab Shack, a special, reservations-required event held in the Horizon Court dining room, and the world is your oyster. Or crab leg. Or mussel. Quintessential seashore fare is served in a fun environment, complete with brown paper table covers and crayons and servers in too-cute nautical apparel. For a $20 cover charge you'll fill up on the likes of succulent fried shrimp and hush puppies; a mixed steamer pot filled with snow crab, jumbo shrimp, clams, and mussels; and the likes of an Oreo cheesecake for dessert.

Get your steak on

One of the thrills of dining on board the Royal Princess is stepping into the culinary worlds they've created. Many passengers' favorite shipboard dining experience, the Crown Grill & Wheelhouse Bar is straight up steak nirvana in a classic New York steakhouse environment. Obviously the premium Sterling Silver steaks are the star of the show, but inventive starters like lamb carpaccio served with pear spaghettini (pear shaved like pasta!) and desserts including a decadent cheese cart round out the occasion. Extra touches like a special sea salt menu make for an altogether fabulous dinner ($25 cover charge).

Fourth meal

We all know the stereotypes about how much you eat on a cruise. OK, it's true. Most days on board Royal Princess included multiple eating occasions. A favorite stop for snacks in between the more substantial meals is the International Café in the atrium piazza. Passengers returning from busy port days make a beeline to the café for refreshing salads, treats like tomato and fresh mozzarella panini, and luscious pastries crafted by the in-house pastry chef. A full coffee bar complete with iced lattes and fine teas make the café the perfect pit stop.

Light if you want to

While you certainly can go off the rails diet-wise if you're so inclined, nobody says you have to. Special diets are easily handled, with vegetarian and gluten-free the most common options. But you can also eat light if you like. For spa cuisine, head to The Sanctuary (really, head there even if you don't care about eating light). This haven just behind the adults-only Retreat pool offers a menu of delectable — and healthful — Cabana Cuisine with nutritional content posted. Choose any and all items (just make sure you go for the refreshing Salmon, Avocado, & Grapefruit Verrine) for a $3 per person delivery fee, and nibble as you lounge in this peaceful and oh-so-lovely spot tucked away at the front of the ship. (Space in The Sanctuary is $15 a half-day/$25 for a full day, per person.)

Wine snobs rejoice

You'll find the largest collection of Super Tuscan wines at sea, with more than 20 choices available in Sabatini’s, the Italian restaurant on board Royal Princess, including Masseto, Solaia, or Tignanello along with lesser known vintages like Castello del Terriccio 'Capannino' or Il Bruciato Bolgheri. 

To really live it up, check out the Wine Tasting event ($40), where you'll taste several wines from the splendid selections while sampling small plates and hearing from winemakers and experts. Bonus: You'll have a chance to buy hard-to-find bottles. 

Consider dining à la carte at Sabatini's as well, for the dreamy, creamy burrata alone, not to mention the freshly made pasta that everyone at my dinner raved about ($25 cover charge).

And more for wine lovers to love

If you just can't get your fill of wine, the winemaker's dinner is for you. The Symphony and Concerto dining rooms each offer private space inspired by a wine cellar where up to 12 diners can gather in a circular area surrounded by wine bottles. Noted winemakers team up with the chefs to develop special menus with wine pairings. Be sure to reserve ahead! You may find crown of veal rack, lamb Baron, or veal rack al’Orlov if you spring for this special occasion dinner. ($40 cover charge.)

Ultimate chef's table

For those of you who want to really go all out (you know who you are), Royal Princess obliges with the Chef’s Table Lumiere. This spectacular dining event and space in the Allegro dining room takes the chef's table to an all new level. Imagine: your small group takes a seat at a custom-made glass table adorned with a Murano glass sculpture under a chandelier, and before you can even register the gold-plated cutlery and fine china, you're enveloped by a curtain of light. You're the envy of everyone in the dining room as you sup on a fantastical meal featuring ingredients sourced at local markets from ports of call. (Cover charge: $115.)