An Italian American Food Blogger Living Under the Tuscan Sun
Dena Fenza Williams is a passionate food blogger who wants to show the world that no matter how busy life gets, it’s important to have at least one meal together each day with the family. She was born in Brooklyn, New York in a neighborhood which has preserved its own Italian American culture, dialect, and cuisine. In two years, Dena’s foodie fan base has quickly grown to over 112K followers on TikTok and 14.7K on Instagram. However, rather than take a quick social media ‘bite’, don’t miss visiting her website where you’ll find the recipes and the stories behind her family recipes. For anyone hoping to buy a home in Italy, Dena is also posting updates on the renovation of her dream home in Tuscany.
Italian Americans like Dena are aware of the cultural differences between Italians in the US and those from different regions in Italy. While Italian cuisine has evolved and altered in the US, there is still one common element between the two countries: La Tavola. “Eating at the table and maintaining those family relations are key,” she says.
For us, Dena represents true Italian American pride and we’re delighted that she joined us in celebrating Italian American Heritage Month! While she is not an ‘expat’, Dena has one foot on the ground in Tuscany and is living her dream “under the Tuscan Sun.”
Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York and then we moved to Long Island when I was 6 years old. I’ve lived on the island ever since. When we moved to North Shore, we were the first to have the big, Italian family move out of Brooklyn.
It was funny when we moved because they thought we were moving to another country! It was only 45 minutes away. We still always got together for Sunday dinners whether we traveled back to Brooklyn, or they came out here to ‘the country’.
My Dad would still buy the bread in Brooklyn because there was no good bread in Long Island. My Mom would freeze the ‘good bread’, so we’d have enough for the week. I have so many memories since I was a little girl about food as part of our culture. Everything in our world revolved around your next meal.
I’m third generation so find it difficult as the generations go on, to hold onto our culture like getting together to make Easter bread or Christmas traditions. Even during the pandemic, we Zoomed to make Easter bread together. To carry on those traditions and have a sense of culture is a very big thing for me.
(5:01) Tell us about your family descendancy
My great grandparents came from Naples and Calabria. There has always been a very Southern Italian influence in my house.
My grandparents spoke Italian. It’s very funny because when my kids were little, I sent them to Italian lessons and when they came home to talk to great grandma about what they learned in class, she had no idea what they were saying! She spoke a heavy dialect. We didn’t really speak Italian at home because my parents didn’t. In fact, they didn’t go to Italy until 2014 when I got married there.
(6:31) Brooklyn was a very Italian American area and you almost felt like it was Italy. We grew up with a great sense of pride of our culture.
(7:41) Did Long Island eventually have more Italian American businesses?
When we first moved here there was nothing. Now we have some really good markets here. There are still some things that I need to go back to Brooklyn to buy like Panelle, a Sicilian street food made from chickpeas. It’s something that we often ate on Friday night because most of the time on Fridays we didn’t eat meat.
(8:54) Feast of the Seven Fishes
I still prepare this Italian-American tradition with seven courses of fish for 50 people. Even during the pandemic, we found a way. For our family, that dinner is probably 65 years strong.
(10:55) When did you first go to Italy?
My first time in Italy was when I was a senior in high school. My parents were very strict and they did want either me or my best friend to go. They finally agreed that we could go provided that my aunt could go as a chaperone. We went to a small Catholic school and my parents knew the Principal, so they allowed my aunt to go. She is only ten years older than me and was equally as excited to go since she had never been.
For me, it was an instant connection! I felt like I was at home. There was a peace that came over me. I didn’t take Italian in high school, but it was an instantaneous love affair for me.
I didn’t return to Italy until I was planning my wedding in 2014.
(16:38) When did your connection to Italian food begin?
I think the first time I made ravioli was at 8 years old. My family always sat down and had a meal together. We are so busy here in America. You’re running from classes to fields and extracurricular activities with your kids and there’s no family time. I am obsessed with family time and have always insisted that we have meals together. And a lot of that grew out of me being in the kitchen with my Mom (growing up) like cooking or cleaning up.
Both of my grandfathers always had restaurants. My Dad’s father who was of Neapolitan descent would come home in the middle of the night and cook a meal for the next day. So, in the middle of the night, I would smell these good smells. Sometimes he asked me to help with things like peel the garlic. I was always interested and he taught me a lot.
(18:47) What did you study at Fordham University?
Journalism. I wanted to be sports broadcaster. I have a big passion for football, baseball, and hockey. I wanted to be the first female broadcaster for the New York Yankees! I did intern for them in ’96 when they won the World Series. It was a great experience! Then, I worked a little bit in TV, but my strict Dad didn’t want me to move to another city. To crack into the New York market as a kid, you must go pay your dues around the country before you come back to New York.
The connection was there and I loved it, but then I met my ex-husband and we got married and started a family. Right when we got married, I decided to pursue my love for children and teaching. I went back to school and taught third grade at a Catholic School in Queens. Teaching for me was my favorite and I loved my kids. To this day, I still am in touch with a lot of them.
(22:01) Stay at Home Mom
When I had my daughter Katerina, I decided to stay home for a few years. Then needing to work, I started thinking out of the box and began catering. That evolved into cooking classes which was ideal because I had a flexible schedule. Since religion is very important to me, I wanted them in Catholic School and, in turn, went back to work.
At the time, I had a restaurant and started working there. I became a manager and eventually opened my own restaurant in 2012. I did that for two years, but the landlord wanted to raise the rent, I divorced, remarried, and then realized that I did not want to work that many hours. My kids needed me.
Since then, I’ve been home with the five kids and to be quite honest, it was one of the best decisions that I ever made.
(23:58) Tell us a bit about your children.
I have five children. Three are mine and the oldest is Katerina who is 19. Christopher is 18 and my youngest Andrew is 16. Then, I have two stepchildren. They are 21 and 19. The two girls are the same age.
(26:51) Is your husband Italian American?
No, he’s not. He’s Irish American. Peter has embraced it like it was his own. My family can be a little intimidating because we’re always together and on the phone constantly. Everyone is involved in everyone’s business. But he loved it and right from the beginning.
(28:43) Hear more about Dena’s wedding in Montalcino.
We got married in Castello Banfi and 50 people came. It was incredible! My family had not been together in a living situation since Brooklyn.
(26:58) Is your husband Italian American?
No. Irish American, but he has embraced it
(31:00) Founding of Micia Mammas
We began as four girlfriends working together, but as you know, it is a lot of work. For me it turned into a passion that developed over the pandemic. Now it’s just me and have been doing it exactly for one year on my own.
I started on TikTok this past February. It’s fun for me because it brings together all my passions — journalism, teaching, food, and my culture.
All my recipes are on my website and some are my own or my family’s. I also do full instructional videos on how to make the dishes. People often say, “Oh my God, you cook all of your dishes,” but all of them are simple. Complex or fancy dishes are not my thing because I’m too busy.
Now with only one child home, I can certainly dedicate more time to it. But I was always on the go. I needed a way prepare a meal and eat together.
My husband and were very involved with sports, so on weeknights we didn’t get home until late. However, we always sat and had a meal together and talked about our day. It wasn’t an Italian three-course meal, but we did it. For me growing up always having dinner together and then with my own family, this tradition has made us very close.
These are the values that I want to pass on to my kids.
One of my main goals for Micia Mammas is to show that as busy Moms, we can cook for our family. You don’t have to throw processed food on the table and can make lunches. I used to work 70 or 80 hours a week when running the restaurant. If you stay organized and plan, it’s possible.
(36:54) Family food prep tips.
The food in this country is so processed. The ingredients that we use and by not eating processed food is really important.
(38:51) Pandemic Project
A bunch of girlfriends went to St. Martin for a vacation in early February of 2020 (right before shutdown) and we came up with the idea which we had time for all being home. We started in about April beginning with mom posts. All four moms are Italian Americans, so we focused on that. As things started to loosen up (as far as the pandemic), two didn’t want to do it anymore and Lisa and I continued.
(41:00) What is your goal for Micia Mammas?
I want people to understand that they can cook for their family. Eventually I would like to publish a cookbook of some of my best recipes. Our home in Tuscany has olive trees, although this year has been a terrible year for harvest because of the heat. It’s sad because there are people dependent on these crops. I do hope to eventually sell my own olive oil here in the States.
(43:38) What is your response to Italians about Italian American food?
It’s funny because being on social media, you expose yourself to the ‘snobby’, ‘I know food better than you’ negative comments. I had something go viral on TikTok that received so many comments, mostly positive.
(44:19) The Brooklyn Dialect
Dena explains some of the food pronunciation differences between what is said in Italy and in Brooklyn, i.e., mozzarella.
I would get criticized when not saying things right, but this is how I grew up saying it. We have to respect the dialects spoken in different Italian regions. Well, here it’s the same. When Italians came over, we had our own dialect. So, don’t be critical.
I had one man a couple of weeks ago on TikTok comment about my video on how to make Sgroppino. He said, “I don’t know where you Americans get this recipe from, but it must be from tourist traps.”
I responded, “I’ve had [this version] while visiting many Italian beach clubs.”
He wanted to know what beach clubs because he insisted that it didn’t exist in Italy.
(46:01) Sharing Family Recipes
I’m just trying to share some of my family’s recipes and inspire people to cook. I’m not saying that you would this exact recipe on a table in Italy, but please don’t comment with negativity.
There are different regions in Italy with different dialects and cuisine. However, Italians came to this US and formed these little enclaves all over the country. They developed their own food traditions based on economics and ingredients available to them. The dialect changed.
Italians want me to respect their traditions, but you must also respect what we do. In Brooklyn we have our own dialect and way of cooking things. I know that you can’t find Chicken Parmigiana in Italy, but it’s good!
Italians in Italy should be proud of the fact that they can influence food so much so in a country like America!
(53:22) Finding Quality Ingredients in the US
In Italy there are less processed foods. Growing up in Brooklyn, the markets were small. When my grandfather wanted to make fish, we went down to the docks. Or we’d go to the Brooklyn Terminal Market and get fresh vegetables there.
Things have certainly changed since the 70s and 80s like how our food is cheated and GMOs. In Italy, the purity of ingredients and even the taste of vegetables like eggplants is magnified. I wish that here in the US we could focus more on quality food. Just because it’s FDA approved doesn’t mean that it’s good for you.
I wish that my followers will learn how to pick out quality ingredients, make a simple meal, and have a meal with family. If I can influence a few people, that makes a big difference for me.
(57:14) The Dream Home
A lot of people say to me, “you’re Southern Italian. Why are you buying a home in Tuscany.” I fell in love the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” as a kid. I can recite every line of that movie and have watched it a million times.
When my husband Peter and I were planning our wedding in Tuscany, I realized that there is something about the area that has my heart. I know that my family is not from there and the cuisine is so much different than I cook. But I just love it and the Val d’Orcia. It’s very calming when I look out the window and seeing the rolling hills and greenery.
My life here in New York is not calming. It’s non-stop. My husband owns his own business and we’ve raised five kids. There were weekends when we were in ten different events for the kids. When I go to Tuscany, I relax.
Fell in Love with Montalcino
When we married, we fell in love with the area, Montalcino. One of my now good friends, Fulvia lives in Montalcino owns a pizzeria with her husband. Once we ate there we asked if we could access their Wi-Fi to watch a Jets football game. She did whatever she could do for us and although she couldn’t get wi-fi we became great friends. She has since sold the pizzeria and owns a bed and breakfast that we now stay in.
We created these types of relationships when we were there. We also made real estate contacts. Last September we went on a trip to see Andrea Bocelli after seeing an ad in the NIAF newsletter. Before going we narrowed down some listings at all price points.
Buying a Home in Italy
My advice is to know what you want to spend like the way you find a home here. I like everything new and even here, we’ve redone everything in my style. After looking at homes in the low, to middle, and high-end homes we finally came to the one that we purchased in December. As soon as we pulled up, I knew that house was it. It had a blue door, blue trim around the windows and an icon of the Virgin Mary (religion has always meant a lot to me). I just fell in love, but it needed a lot of work.
The agent Francesca asked us if we wanted to own a home that needed a lot of work and manage it from another country. Not only did she bring us to all these fabulous homes, but she also laid out what the whole experience would be. She connected us with good architects and contacts.
The previous owners of the home we purchased are American. They found a home that they liked much better.
(60:07) History of the Home
The laws are strict when renovating and you can’t make major changes to the outside. My beautiful view of the Val d’Orcia will never change because of these restrictions. I am thankful for that.
Dena describes the home and the changes that had been made.
(60:09) We found a lawyer through our bank and he’s in Florence. I was told not to trust Italians, but we’ve had a great experience.
(60:13) Hiring a Property Manager
We hired someone to manage the place while we’re gone. Yes, it’s an extra expense but it’s really not that much. She goes over and beyond and, for example, makes transfers from the bank to the builder or the guy who is making the kitchen cabinets.
They all love that Americans are there. Things move slower than here, but I’m okay with that because everything in New York is so fast paced. They enjoy life and it’s been a fun experience.
It’s the same as here. You have a budget and you always go over.
In my wildest dreams, I never thought this was possible.
(60:20) What are your future plans?
I think the plan would be to go with the families together as much as possible. We’ll do the Italian summer and use the house as our base.
I hate packing and I always overpack, so I’m excited to have my own set of stuff there. Our home is so centrally located that we can get to many other places. I want to experience that with the kids in the summer and then once Andrew goes to college, I think we’ll spend more time there.
(60:23) Chat with an Expat
I’d like to have dual Italian citizenship, but I need to do things in baby steps.
I think moving to Italy is attainable. I do follow a lot of people on social media who have moved there. They find life easier and refreshing. I think it’s a beautiful experience. Learning the language is key although most people in Italy speak English.
I hope that as I go more, I will learn to speak more Italian.
(60:26) What do you miss from the US when in Italy?
Certainly, the convenience. For example, my home in Italy doesn’t have an address so even to get an Amazon package is hard. The quick accessibility that we have here is not the same there. I also miss Target, a store where you can get everything in one place. I also miss American cuisine because there are so many cultures. New York has amazing restaurants.