Where to Go in Tuscany: Pienza

Driving north from Rome, this picturesque view is the first glimpse I had of Pienza.

Pienza provides charm galore and makes for the perfect hub for your visit to Tuscany. Not only will you find amazing landscapes in the area surrounding the town, but you’ll also have a chance to explore the historical town, see and photograph charming flower-filled doorways and enjoy delicious food at a number of restaurants.

Where to Stay

I had a wonderful stay at the Piccolo Hotel La Valle on the edge of town (outside of the ZTL). I really appreciated the helpfulness of the staff at the desk. Not only did my room and the patio (see photo below) have a gorgeous view, it was also a very convenient to walk into town at night for dinner. I like that feature a lot. After a day spent driving around scouting photography locations, it was nice to have a short walk before and after dinner. Plus, if you’re traveling solo as I do, you might like to know, I felt totally safe walking alone at night back to the hotel.

Tuscany landscape
View from Piccolo Hotel La Valle, Pienza
Pienza doorway with flowers and bicycle
Pienza Doorway

How to Get to Pienza
You can rent a car at the Termini Train Station and drive north out of Rome on the expressway. It’s a little nerve wracking getting to the freeway, but once you get there, it’s just like driving on expressways here at home. Occasionally you have to stop and pay toll by cash or credit. Conveniently, there are gas stations with cafes along the way just like rest stops here at home.

When you get to Pienza, it’s pretty easy to avoid the ZTL traffic zone. It’s well marked, and there are a few public parking areas at the edge of town.

A pop of yellow flowers and a brick wall. What more do you need?
Perhaps, magenta flowers are more your taste?

Where to Eat

Buca delle Fate – This restaurant had the most delicious gluten-free pasta. I tried several varieties including the truffle pasta. They were all really good. Plus, I had a steak with arugula that was quite nice. I also appreciated the kind service of the staff.

La Mensa del Conte – This restaurant is very knowledgeable about gluten free dining. I enjoyed both the pasta and steak here. They have a very good olive oil with peppers in it, but the highlight was the gluten free cheesecake served in a small jar. So good!

Worth Takeaway in Mesa is Worth a Taste or Two or Three

If you’re a fan of chicken salad, you’ll love Worth Takeaway in Mesa, Arizona. As you can see from the picture above, the chicken is hand pulled and not small chunks of lunch meat.

I really enjoyed the sweet potatoes that were served as an alternate to bread, making the “sandwich” gluten free. Apples and blue cheese rounded out the tasty salad nicely.

According to their website, the owners of Worth Takeaway take great pride in sourcing local ingredients for the menu items. I agree with them that doing so makes for a greater connection with the community. Plus, local ingredients makes for tastier food.

Next time I visit, I’m trying one of their custom made sodas. According to their Instagram, the new holiday feature is Cranberry Orange Thyme. I have also got to find out if their Blackberry Lime Greek Yogurt with homemade granola is gluten free. The person ahead of me in line ordered it, and it looked fantastic layered in the cup.

The entire restaurant has a pleasant simplicity that will feel welcoming and not at all fussy. I loved the small cactus in clear glass that was set on each table. It’s a very nice Arizona touch.

When you stop for breakfast or lunch at Worth Takeaway, you can also pick up a custom bunch of flowers. I really liked the fresh modern greenery with white mums and roses, along with the maroon daises. It’s a fresh take on a Christmas flower arrangement.

You can find Worth Takeaway at 218 West Main Street in Mesa for breakfast or lunch. You’ll notice it by the patio seating out front and the “W’s” on the front windows. Parking was easy. I didn’t have any trouble parking on the street on a Sunday afternoon.

Drop me a comment below, and let me know if you’ve eaten here. I’d love to learn of your favorite menu item.

The Best Restaurants at Phoenix Sky Harbor (PHX)

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport at sunset taken from inside Terminal 4.

The first touchpoint for many tourists to Arizona will be Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX). As a visitor in transit, you’ll appreciate the powered walkways between terminals and the bottle refill stations in every terminal so you can avoid paying $5 for a bottle of water. That is, if you remember to bring your refillable container from home.

TIP: Did you know you can go through TSA security with ice? As long as you don’t have your container filled with water, you will likely sail right through. Of course, you may get an officer who shakes your bottle just to double check, but I’ve never had an issue with ice only.

Another pleasant surprise tourists will find at PHX includes food from several of the best restaurants in Phoenix that have locations at the airport.

Here’s a list of the 9 best restaurants post-security organized by terminal:

Terminal 2

Barrio Avion – Mexican – Choose your favorite fillings and you’ll be on your way to enjoying some of the most flavorful Mexican food I’ve tasted.

Terminal 3

Taberna del Tequila – Mexican – I haven’t eaten at this restaurant, but from among the options available in Terminal 3, this restaurant would be my first choice in this terminal.

Terminal 4

Olive & Ivy, Gate A3 – I’ve been to their flagship Scottsdale location, which has more choices. If I was in the mood for something light, I’d grab a salad from this airport location.

Pei Wei, Gate A22 – Asian – While this restaurant is a national chain, they serve a tasty spicy chicken rice bowl that I’ve enjoyed several times.

Matt’s Big Breakfast, Gate B5 – Bacon with eggs, burgers or bloody marys. Try their other locations across the valley for a breakfast that can’t be beat.

Madeleine, Gate B20 – French – The salads and new dinner and wine entrees look very appetizing.

Sir Veza’s Taco Garage, Gate C13 – The next time I fly out of Terminal C, I’d like to try the fish or shrimp tacos here.

Barrio Cafe, Gate D1 – Mexican – I love the Cochinita Pibil at this restaurant. Plus, the service is really top notch. I’ve been to the flagship Phoenix location and adore the table-made guacamole. They serve it with a garnish of pomegranate seeds.

La Grande Orange, Gate D1 – You’ll have a hard time making a choice from all of the fresh selections. I’d choose a salad, but you might prefer a sandwich or bakery item. At the Arcadia location, I really like their smashed potatoes.

Any recent PHX travelers care to add to or debate my list? Drop a comment below for your tips.

Holy Salsa, Taco Guild Rocks the Church

I’ve found salsa heaven at Taco Guild, a central Phoenix, Mexican gastropub located in a renovated 1893 Methodist church. Choose your vehicle of choice from the menu to get more of the tasty red sauce into your mouth. Tacos are what they are known and highly rated for, but you can also choose enchiladas or burritos and layer on some of the hot stuff. Or, you could keep it simple and traditional and just dip your chips into the saucy goodness.

Next time I go, I have got to try the fresh guacamole and street corn. I’m also eyeing the ceviche and diablo eggs. Oh, and they also have green chili queso. I guess I’ll be going back multiple times to be able to try everything on the menu. Yum!

It’s not all about the food. You also want friendly service. From the moment you open the front door, the staff has a kind welcome for you.

Once you’ve decided on your order, take a look around at all of the original items that have been incorporated into the decor. From the wood-beamed ceiling to the concrete floors, the stained glass windows and the pews that line the wall–all are original from the old church. If you’re lucky enough to sit along the back wall, there are framed historical items that you can review. (Obviously, it would be hard to take a look at them if other diners are seated there, as you’d be leaning over their table).

If you visit for Sunday brunch (or anytime for that matter, if you’re so inclined), you can do a quick bible study while you’re waiting for your food to arrive. Just use your phone to look up one of the bible verses from the stained glass windows.

The stained glass transom window has a special story. They took extra care to preserve this window and to respect the wishes of the original donor.

You can visit Taco Guild at 546 East Osborn Road, Phoenix, AZ 85012. If it’s not lunch time or dinner time, it’s probably Happy Hour with deals on drinks and food, which is perfect for visitors to Phoenix who may have a more flexible schedule. Enjoy!

Photographing Taco Guild

If it’s your first time to Taco Guild, chances are you’ll want to take a few photos. You’re good to go with your phone to Instagram some foodie shots. However, if you want to get good photos of the stained glass windows, you’ll likely need to take a bit more time to import your photos into Lightroom and use the “transform” module to adjust horizontal and vertical on the window shots so they appear more flat than tilted.

My shots of the bar didn’t turn out very well. I’d recommend taking extra care with those captures. There will be a lot of reflection from the bottles and glassware to deal with. Plus, the staff is busy working behind there, so that is a lot of motion to deal with in order to get the type of shot you want.

I crossed the street (watch for traffic if you attempt it!) to get the full shot of the building with the nice sky. I like the extra sky in the image as it connects with the “heavens” above the old church, now restaurant.

While the church was deconsecrated in 2012, some people might consider eating at Taco Guild to be a holy experience because of the food. I do. Try it and let me know what you think in the comments below.