The rise and fall of fettuccine Alfredo is a story of a simple dish taken from its home and embellished with flourishes before sliding into culinary familiarity, dullness and bastardization.
Although it has its roots in Roman cuisine, it is nothing but a restaurant dish in Italy and America. Fettuccine Alfredo became a classic of Italian-American cooking, but today is often served as third-rate tourist food in the Little Italy emporiums catering to them in America’s cities.
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This wasn’t always true. In the 1940s and 1950s, fettuccine Alfredo was a signature dish of continental-style French-service restaurants where waiters, with a flourish, would prepare the dish tableside in a chafing dish.
The classic story of its origins is that the dish was invented in a Roman trattoria on the Via della Scrofa near the Tiber River by Alfredo di Lelio, who opened his restaurant in the early part of the 20th century. He invented the dish for his wife, it is said, after she gave birth and lost her appetite.
The dish became famous to Americans after Hollywood stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford ate at Alfredo’s in 1927 and raved about his preparation called fettuccine Alfredo. It was in America that cream started entering the recipe and that fettuccine Alfredo began its descent to a thick, heavy, glop of pasta. The original, although meant to be rich, was also light and silky because all that was used was butter and Parmesan cheese: cream and eggs were never meant to be used.
Interestingly, Italians do not refer to this dish as fettuccine Alfredo — or when they do they’re well aware of the American connection — but rather fettuccine al triplo burro, fettuccine with triple the amount of butter, the name of the original dish. Even more interestingly, two great cookbooks on Roman cuisine Ada Boni’s “La Cucina Romana” and Livia Jannattoni’s “La Cucina Romana e del Lazio” do not mention fettuccine Alfredo, indicating that it never was part of Roman cooking but is culinary fantasy.
The dish should be made with fresh fettuccine, but dried works just fine as well. The quality of the butter and cheese in fettuccine Alfredo are paramount. I recommend the Parmigiano-Reggiano butter made from the same cow’s milk the famous Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is made from and which you must also use.
- 1 pound fresh fettuccine
- ½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
- ½ pound (about 4 cups) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)
- Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing saving ¾ cup of the pasta cooking water.
- Meanwhile, cut the butter into thin pats or flakes and transfer half of them to a warmed large oval silver platter where you will do the final tossing. Place the cooked pasta over the butter, sprinkle the cheese on top. Toss, sprinkling some reserved pasta water. Add the remaining butter and toss, adding the pasta water to make the pasta look creamy. You will be tossing for 2 minutes. Sprinkle on the black pepper if desired. Serve immediately.
Main photo: Fettucine Alfredo. Credit: Clifford A. Wright