|Setting the piazza for Loews Harbor Nights // All photos by Maureen Stone |
The allure of food and wine travel continues to fuel a growing number of culinary-themed programs in the industry’s cruise and tour sectors that are just catching up to guest experiences already well-established in the resort business. One U.S. hotel resort company has demonstrated the ability to run ahead of the curve in using food and wine events to drive hungry visitors to its properties. The Loews Portofino Bay at Universal Studios in Orlando initiated its Harbor Nights evenings in 2004, and the series of food, wine and entertainment events has become a popular attraction for both central Floridian foodies and visiting Loews Hotels Universal Orlando guests.
|Trattoria del Porto chefs serving spinach and ciabatta stuffed beef brasciole.|
Four Harbor Nights events take place on the picturesque harbor piazza of the 750-room Loews Portofino Bay property each season between October and April. According to the hotel’s General Manager Diane Petit, each event draws between 600 and a maximum of 900 guests. The Harbor Nights evenings, usually held on Fridays, begin in October with “Harbor Nights La Dolce Vita,” followed by “Holiday Harbor Nights” on the Friday after Thanksgiving that includes a piazza tree lighting ceremony kicking off the Loews Portofino’s holiday season. The series continues in February with a “Harbor Nights Romantico” celebrating Valentine’s Day, and concludes in mid-April with “Harbor Nights Primavera” celebrating the arrival of spring.
|Wine Service at Loews Harbor Nights|
Why Harbor Nights?
The evenings are designed, according to Petit, to “showcase amazing food and wine in one of the most spectacular settings in Florida…the hotel’s re-creation of the seaside village of Portofino.” The general manager said Harbor Nights draws both Orlando area locals and out-of-towners. “We have couples that come to every one of them,” said Petit. She added that each event generates between 40 and 50 room nights at the Loews Portofino Bay from visitors combining accommodations with their dinner event booking.
Dishes prepared for each Harbor Nights evening come from the seasonally-changing menus of the Loews Portofino’s on-property restaurants. They include the family-style Mama Della’s; the more traditional fine dining of Bice Restaurant Orlando, one of the Bice Group’s nine dining locations in the U.S.; the Trattoria Del Porto featuring casual dining on the harborside; the Splendido Bar & Grill, which serves lunchtime guests at the hotel’s beach pool; and Sal’s Market Deli, which serves fresh take-away food, including pizzas made to order. The hotel’s retail Gelateria provides Harbor Nights desserts created from the shop’s own Italian gelato flavors. Harbor Nights food and wine servings begin shortly after 6 p.m. and continue until 9, a three-hour food fest in which most serving stations still have food on offer, but few takers among the satiated guests focused on the live opera and dance music in the final hour.
|Prosciutto wrapped chicken rollatini from Mama Della's Ristoramte|
Visits to Harbor Nights Romantico and Primavera
Travel Agent visited the two most recent Harbor Nights Fridays, including Harbor Nights Romantico on February 8 and Harbor Nights Primavera on April 19. Staff chefs were positioned at serving stations throughout the hotel’s harbor piazza serving appetizer-sized portions of more than seven dinner courses. Diners wearing admission wristbands enjoyed as many repeat tastings of each course as they wished, as well as tastings of more than 15 red, white and sparkling wines that were introduced and served to guests by their distribution representatives. During the two evening events attended, diners tasted wines primarily from California and Italy, as well as selections from Spain, Portugal, Argentina and other origins. One serving station offered a selection of Peroni beers, imported from Italy.
Mama Della’s Restaurant in February presented a marsala risotto cake topped by grilled flank steak and a mushroom ragu at the Romantico event, and then rewarded returning guests in April with a prosciutto-wrapped chicken rollatini over a mushroom and fingerling potato ragu that was a highlight of the Primavera evening. Tasters sensed some friendly hotel kitchen competition in play when Trattoria Del Porto chefs presented their herb-crusted salmon over a white bean pancetta stufato (stew) in February, and came back in April with Tuscan bread soup with feta cheese and smoked shrimp on a skewer. At the same time Bice was serving oversized ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach under truffle shavings at the first 2013 event and an eggplant rollatini with spinach, ricotta, parmesan topped by tomato garlic sauce on another.
|Harbor Nights choice - table dine or network at standup bars.|
Wine, Dessert and Opera
Wine tastings were equally unlimited on these evenings with selections including Falesco Viatiano Rosso, Kris Pinot Noir, Castelvero Cortese, Tavernello Vino Bianco and Lunetta Sparkling Rose, among a dozen other choices in February, and Danzante Merlot, Tintonegro Malbec, Frescobaldi Remole Toscana, William Hill Chardonnay, Borgo Maddalena Pinot Grigio, and La Marca Proscecco among many other wines in April.
Diners at these events needed to pace themselves to allow room for such gelateria and restaurant dining room desserts as triple chocolate or pineapple gelato, champagne sorbet, panna cotta with raspberry coulis, or cannolis that were advertised as “mini” but turned out to be full-sized belly bombers with chocolate drizzle over the cannoli cream. Agreement soon spread through the happy crowd at these events that the admission fee, currently at $45 per person online or $55 at the door, is a steal. There is an upgraded V.I.P. reserved table admission, available at $75 per person, that includes table servings of wine and hors d’oevres along with separate food serving stations. Regular guests who arrive at the start of the evening, however, can easily find a table of their own in the expansive, unreserved section of the piazza.
The eveninga included popular arias and Italian love songs from live opera singers, who are classically-trained singers serving the Loews Portofino with tableside music in Mama Della’s restaurant and mini-concerts called “Music Della Notte” on most evenings from the hotel’s balconies. The Harbor Nights events also featured rousing multi-piece bands and vocalists who started the evening with jazz standards and swing before attracting the dance crowd to burn dinner calories after nightfall to livelier rock sounds. There was a local cigar maker on hand who offers hand-rolled after-dinner cigars at no added charge. A highlight of the evenings was interacting with the personable and generous Loews Portofino service staff.
|An opera singer serenades the Harbor Nights crowd.|
Travel Agent Access to Events
Travel agents who want to learn more about Harbor Nights and other Loews Hotels at Universal Orlando culinary events can visit www.universalorlando.com/hotelevents and find specific event ticket information at www.loewshotels.tix.com
Note that Harbor Nights could be the perfect fit for parents looking for a relaxing evening after a strenuous day with the kids in the theme parks. The Loews Portofino Bay offers Campo Portofino, a children’s supervised evening play program for kids aged 4 to 14. Children have supervised computer, game and movie activities along with a dinner if desired. The price is $15 per child per hour, with dinner an additional $15 per child. In-room babysitting services can also be arranged through the hotel concierge.
Another good site for locating information, including dates and menus of other events at Loews Hotels at Universal Orlando properties is found at http://www.wdwinfo.com/universal/events.htm#beer. Some periodic events to consider include four-course food and beer pairing dinners at Jake’s American Bar in the Loews Royal Pacific Hotel, and a five-course Wine Rocks Dinner food and wine pairing dinner in the Kitchen Restaurant at the Loews Hard Rock Hotel. Jake’s beer dinners are priced at this writing at $55 per person, and the Hard Rocks wine dinners are $95 per person. Tax and gratuities are extra at both events, but Loews normally adds an attractive touch by including free self-parking in its hotel garages for special food events.
|Dancing under Loews Portofino Hotel lights at Harbor Nights|