Fettuccine Alfredo has a unique place in the multifaceted world of Italian cookery. The dish is famous in America and hardly known in Italy, but it is actually Italian, not Italian-American, at least originally. It was invented by Roman restauranteur Alfredo di Lelio, who—the story goes—invented it to suit his pregnant wife who had lost her appetite for most foods. He later introduced the dish, modestly named after himself, into the menu of his restaurant on via della Scofa in 1914. Some years later, in 1920 he famously served it to American film stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, who were visiting Rome on their honeymoon. And the rest, as they say, is history. His fettuccine «Alfredo»—really just a richer variation on a perfectly everyday dish, fettuccine al burro—became a hit in the States. Lucky Alfredo hit the proverbial jackpot, making oodles of money from his famous noodles as a veritable parade of Hollywood movie stars trapsed through his establishment, along with lots of eager, well-healed tourists.
If you want to experience a bit of culinary history, you can visit Alfredo’s restaurant still today—there are actually two now, the second one is down the via della Scrofa at the piazza Augusto Imperatore (home to the ruins of Emperor Augustus‘ mausoleum and his ‘Altar of Peace’, or Ara Pacis, one of the most intact and, to my mind, most beautiful pieces of Roman architecture still in existence). You can try Alfredo’s famous fettuccine in their birthplace, surrounded by other tourists, if you’re willing to pay the dizzying prices. During my years in Rome, we lived not too far from Alfredo’s, and passed it almost on a daily basis. It was one of those places where you would pass by and never hear Italian spoken—an oddity even in fairly touristy places. I didn’t know a single Italian who had ever set foot inside, and neither did I, in the ten years I lived there.
In any event, this venerable dish is very simple and easy to make if you have the right ingredients—real, freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese, best quality butter and fettuccine, ideally homemade, of course, but good-quality store-bought egg pasta will do just fine as well. It may come as a surprise to some readers, but Alfredo’s original recipe does not call for cream; that was added when the dish crossed the ocean to America. In the original version, the cheese is mixed vigorously with the pasta and a bit of the water in which the pasta is cooked, forming a creamy consistency without the actual cream, sort of like that other Roman pasta dish, cacio e pepe. I like both versions of the dish, but it’s really worth trying the original recipe. It has a purer taste and, if not exactly dietetic, is rather lighter than its American cousin.
Serves 4-6 persons
- 500g (1 lb.) of egg fettuccine (if you’re making homemade, use 5 eggs)
- 250g (1/2 lb.) butter, preferably of the cultured “European style” type
- 250g (1/2 lb.) freshly grated imported parmigiano-reggiano cheese
- Salt, to taste
- A grinding of fresh pepper (optional)
Put a large pot, filled with water, on high heat. While the water is heating up, melt the butter in a skillet over very gentle heat, making sure that the butter just melts without coloring at all. Turn off the heat.
When the water comes to a boil, add a good pinch of salt and the noodles. Cook only until quite al dente, typically 2-3 minutes for store-bought fettuccine, a bit less for the freshly made kind.
Now drain and transfer the fettuccine to the skillet. Add a pinch of salt and mix vigorously with a fork and spoon, or with some long tongs. Add a handful of cheese and a ladleful of the pasta water and mix again, then more cheese and mix, until the cheese has been used up. Add a bit more pasta water if and when needed—the cheese should melt into a smooth, creamy sauce. It should not be at all watery, but the pasta should be ‘loose’ and slither around the pan easily.
Serve the fettuccine immediately, with additional grated cheese for those who want it. While not part of the original recipe, a fresh grinding of black pepper would not be amiss.
Some recipes for fettuccine Alfredo call for making the dish off heat, in a warm bowl, but I like using a skillet. It keeps the pasta warm, and is more forgiving if you happen to add a bit too much pasta water, for example, you can cook it off. It also keeps the pasta nice and hot. But make sure the heat is very gentle, or the sauce will ‘fry’ and lose its creamy texture.
If you want to make this dish “American style”, just add a good glug of heavy cream to the butter and let it reduce until it reaches a ‘saucy’ consistency. Otherwise, the recipe is identical. Well, that is, the classic American style dish. These days you can find just about anything made “Alfredo”, sometime sans pasta… but let’s not go there…
Besides the imported parmigiano-reggiano cheese, if you can find imported European cultured butter, which has richer flavor than ‘sweet’ butter, that’s all to the good. For this evening’s dinner, I actually found some butter from Parma, which naturally made a perfect match for the cheese. And the noodles, of course, need to be best-quality as well. If you’d rather not make them yourself at home, the De Cecco brand puts out some very nice fettuccine at a moderate price. Cipriani also makes excellent tagliatelle (a thinner version of fettuccine) that would make for a splendid dish of fettuccine Alfredo, but at twice the price. On the other hand, avoid the rubbery stuff they sell in supermarkets as ‘fresh’ egg pasta. I find it has terrible texture and a funny taste.