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My Tuscan Dream Come True

Cookbook author Dena Fenza fulfilled her dream of having an Italian home and became an olive oil producer in the process.

9:00 AM EST on December 12, 2023

Cookbook author Dena Fenza during the olive harvest on her Tuscan property.

Cookbook author Dena Fenza during the olive harvest on her Tuscan property.

As an Italian-American, I have had a lifelong obsession with Italy. It is hard to explain, but each time I visit I feel like I am home. There is an uncanny familiarity to me that I can’t put my finger on, but it is real and alive in my heart. Italy is part of my soul. 

In 2021, my husband and I set out on a journey to find a home in Montalcino, Tuscany. On a warm September day, my husband and I, along with our real estate agent, Francesca, headed up a long, unpaved road to an abandoned home, overlooking the Val d'orcia. When we pulled up to the house, I noticed two things right away: the large olive grove, and the icon of the Blessed Mother right above the front door. I knew immediately that this was it. We toured the home, which needed an extensive amount of work, but it didn’t matter to me. We put in an offer, and it was accepted. In December 2021, we became homeowners in Italy and embarked on our very own version of “Under the Tuscan Sun.” 

This property, named “Il Poderino,” had an old farmhouse where once the animals lived downstairs, and the farmer lived on the second floor. It also had a barn, which we decided would become a guest house. We filed permits, waited on approvals, and began an 18-month restoration project of this property. It was very important for us to keep the charm of the house. Even though it needed extensive work, I tried to preserve everything I could, whether that meant using the old barn door as a piece of art, finding old bricks around the property to do patchwork, or keeping all the original ceilings, doors, and windows.  

The olive groves and farmhouse at Il Podereno.
The olive groves and farmhouse at Il Poderino.

One of the first things we noticed on this journey was how much slower things moved in Italy as opposed to the fast-paced New York life that we knew. A project that we thought would take nine months took more than double the amount of time to complete, but I knew it would be worth it. 

Over the course of this time, I documented my journey on social media. We traveled back and forth, picking out every detail of our home. But the one thing that I became fascinated by was my olive trees. I’ve been obsessed with extra virgin olive oil for my whole life. For me, it’s not only about the health benefits but the incredible flavor that it gives food. I decided that I was going to educate myself and create my olive oil brand with my trees. 

I enlisted the help of a local man named Nico. He had his own grove with almost 2,000 trees and agreed to help us take care of our trees. We met with him on each trip to Tuscany. He was the teacher, and I was the student. After each meeting, I would document what he told me and take notes. I began to read and watch everything I could find about harvesting olives and making olive oil. 

The fruit of Dena Fenza'a labor.
The fruit of Dena Fenza'a labor.

In November 2022, we decided to do a harvest. It was mid-month, a little later than usual. We hadn’t known the last time these trees had been harvested. There had also been a drought, so production would be limited. We decided to give it a try anyway. The results for me were not up to my standards. The oil was too weak and not spicy enough. Overall, it didn’t taste balanced. So we headed back to the drawing board. Nico suggested that we fertilize the trees, and in January 2023 he came with his machines and did the work. He came a few times to cut the grass over the next few months, and we added a few rows of trees of different olive varietals. I was told that this would help balance the taste of the oil. The rest was left to Mother Nature. 

In May, we were finally able to stay at the house for the first time. We had our whole family over for my parents' 50th wedding anniversary, and my aunt even got engaged at our home. That summer, I would walk through the grove and visit the trees and watch the olives grow. Don’t think I am crazy, but I would talk to them, telling them that I couldn’t wait for a bountiful harvest. 

After a very rainy spring and balanced weather — summer of some rain and lots of sunshine — our trees were ready to be harvested. I collaborated with Nico and decided that this year we would harvest in early October to ensure the highest quality. Early harvest means less quantity, but that didn't matter. I began working on the label, picked out a bottle, and planned an olive-picking trip with my two closest girlfriends. 

Harvested olives from Dena Fenza's trees.
Harvested olives from Dena Fenza's trees.

It was Monday, October 9, and the morning of the harvest was officially here. It was a warm summer-like day, and I was like a kid on Christmas morning. I woke up early and made a quick tomato sauce so that we could have a nice dish of pasta for lunch. Nico and his crew arrived to help us, and we got to work. His crew had these electric olive rakes. They shake the olives off the tree without damaging the branches into nets that we placed under each tree. The girls and I got busy using our hands and small rakes to harvest as well. Once the trees were harvested, the olives were put into crates and loaded into Nico’s trucks. Once we had a full truckload, we went over to our local frantoio. In Italy, this is the place where olives are pressed into liquid gold, and every small town seems to have one. 

Upon arrival to our frantoio, I couldn’t help notice the incredible earthy smell. I was so excited to witness the process. Our olives were first loaded into machines that separated them from any branches. Then they were washed and smashed into this paste-like consistency. And finally they were pressed into liquid gold. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the oil come out of the machine. The oil is then put into big jugs, and we brought them to Nico’s office to be bottled. We made many visits back to the frantoio as the olives continued to be harvested.

That evening we got to taste the fruits of our labor. The result was a full-bodied, EVOO, with a unique and perfectly balanced bitter, fruity, and spicy flavor. I couldn’t help thinking to myself that my pep talks to the trees worked. I was proud to put my name on this olive oil, and I couldn’t wait to ship it back to the United States and make it available to my followers on social media. 

On November 7, our oil went on sale along with my debut cookbook, My Italian American Table. The response was incredible. Our oil sold out in less than two days, and people all over the country, and even Canada, are enjoying my olive oil in their own kitchens. 

The feeling of joy overcomes me each time I get a message from someone telling me how much they enjoy the olive oil. Now the plan is to plant more trees. But in the meantime, Nico and I have worked on a collaboration where I will sell his olive oil on my website. Nico couldn’t be more excited to do this. He says his dream is that his pure Tuscan extra virgin olive oil would be enjoyed in American homes. The excitement of this brings him to tears, and I hope this is the start of a wonderful partnership. I guess, ultimately, this whole experience of a dream turned into a reality for the both of us!

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