As a mother of a toddler, my Friday nights are anything but glamorous. If I’m lucky (and that’s a very strong if), I’m able to sit through an entire episode of a series I’ve been slowly chewing on before I fall asleep on the couch. So, you can imagine how ecstatic I was when I was invited to my first Harbor Nights at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando.
Picture this: a sunset event where you get to dress up, try a wide assortment of wines and taste decadent flavors, all to the sound of great live music and opera singers (and I bet I had you at “sunset event”). It doesn’t get more dolce vita than that, does it?
…I’m glad you asked, because yes, yes it does. Take a walk with me around the Italian-inspired Harbor Piazza as I relive that lively April evening at my first Harbor Nights event — from the classy “champagne welcome” to me trying caviar for the first time.
If there’s one thing you must know about me going into this it is that I love all things Italian. You see, Italy and I have got history: not only is part of my mom’s family from Naples — which means I was raised on pizza and pasta and opera concerts (and eventually wine) — I’ve back-packed solo around the country a couple times, got engaged in Rome, honeymooned on the Italian Riviera, and have been trying to learn Italian on one of those language apps for forever now. So, I knew right away I would feel very much at home at Harbor Nights.
As I pulled into Portofino Bay Hotel at a little before 6:00 pm, jamming to the awesome “Old Italian Classics” playlist I had put together especially for the drive (which I have on for inspiration while writing this), I could already see the hotel lit up with twinkling lights, a big stage set up for the band by the water and the many tables covered in fancy white linens spread throughout the Piazza. I knew before even going in that I was in for an incomparable evening. After quickly parking my car (self-parking is free for those attending the event, by the way), I met up with a couple of work friends with whom I’d share that delightful evening and had a table reserved just for us — one of the many perks included with the VIP ticket.
We walked into the upstairs Piazza Centrale right by the lobby and were greeted with a glass of champagne and then given our VIP wristbands with our assigned table number. Now that we were properly equipped, we headed downstairs to the waterfront Harbor Piazza, where it was all happening. The tables were already occupied with friends, couples and families (no kids, though, as the event is strictly for 21+ years and older).
Before being escorted to our spot, I stopped for a moment to take it all in: what a view. I was instantly transported to a rom-com movie scene set in Italy: the ambiance of a seaside Italian village, the sunset reflected on the harbor, the cool waterfront breeze, the aroma of Italian cuisine, the outdoor cafes… It was all very Letters for Juliet.
All Harbor Nights events follow a similar format, but each edition is set to a different tone in regards to music, decoration, and even food items. And at this Primavera (Spring) edition, everything seemed to be coming to life. Needless to say, 15 minutes in and I was already trying to find when the next Harbor Nights would take place — save the date: October 21st, 2022!
Tempo di Mangiare
That’s what Italians say when it’s time to eat. And it’s always time to eat at Harbor Nights. The food stations are lined across the Piazza, each featuring authentic Italian fare and other classic favorites from Portofino’s restaurants, and part of the fun is to walk around tasting the different dishes — a fancy all-you-can-eat, if you will. Word of advice? Come on an empty stomach — well, maybe not completely empty as you’ll probably have a drink in hand from the minute you walk in, but make sure you’re hungry. I made the rookie mistake of snacking before, as I’m not usually a daring eater and wasn’t really sure how much I would actually eat. Turns out, a lot. And with the VIP ticket, you get an additional hors d’oeuvres plate to get you started, which prepped us for our first round of wine tasting.
Sparkling, rosé, white, red — take your pick! There were over 15 labels to choose from, which made the wine-tasting-go-round rather interesting. I’m a red wine person myself, so I knew exactly where to start. I ended up finding one that I really enjoyed right away, the PassioneSentimento Veneto Rosso (that has ever since made my weekly shopping cart), which paired perfectly with my favorite dish at the event, the Four Cheese Tortellini, a creamy marsala with mushroom sauce (I admittedly went back for thirds). To my own surprise, I ended up enjoying rather unexpected dishes, like the Charred Mediterranean Pulpo, a grilled purple sweet potato dish, with octopus, saffron aioli, and pickled mustard seed caviar. And guys, this was a big deal for me, as I’d never had caviar before — but since it was a night of many firsts, I figured why not?
By this point, the live band was already getting people off their seats and we were all singing along to My Girl, by The Temptations, while taking selfies by the harbor. The band then took a break and, for a few seconds there, the expectation in the air was palpable — everyone knew what was happening next. The Piazza suddenly turned into an open-air theater with amazing acoustics as two opera singers began their performance from one of the balconies.
As a storyteller, I’ve always enjoyed the power of a strong narrative, and operas are exactly that: one of the most vivid, vulnerable and honest forms of telling a story. Add music and theater to that and, wow, you’ve got me in tears. Gladly, it seemed to have the same effect on everyone around — we were all enthralled. I noticed that the table sitting beside us was especially emotional and we got to talking (as I do with strangers at events). Like me, they were from Brazil and were staying at Portofino for the weekend. This family of five had been waiting for this edition of Harbor Nights for over two years so, to them, actually being at the event felt particularly special and surreal.
And although this group and I would’ve stayed chit-chatting for at least another hour about wine… and opera… and food… I had a baby at home I now needed to get back to. I made one last stop at the dessert station to savor what I had been craving the whole night: the Vanilla Raspberry Almond Torte and Triple Chocolate Brownie Caramel Verrine. It’s safe to say I had more than a few of the treats.
As I rode away, windows down, I could still see the twinkling lights and hear the band play their last tunes from across the harbor. And it looked so beautiful — a movie scene, truly — that I asked my husband to stop the car in the middle of the road so I could take a picture. Well, the photo didn’t turn out great, as you can see below, but it does translate the energy of that night: magical. I eventually got back into my car and headed home — playlist still on, of course.
Share with us your Harbor Nights experience in the comments below and stay up to date on all of the special events at the hotels by clicking here. And be sure to mark your calendar for the next Harbor Nights on October 21st 2022.
Must be 21 years and older with valid identification to purchase or drink alcoholic beverages.