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.
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.
- 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.
What great homage you have made in honor of your Grand Mother and all Italian
casalinghe. Women chefs rock and their disciples do too. If I don’t follow Maria Cau or Armida Latela then it’s either Marcella or Frank. You have picked up and carry on an important torch. At least in my book. Thanks for all the good ideas. They always ring true and reliable
Fantastico! You are brilliant! I love all of your tid-bits of informatione regarding locations and history of bella Roma!!
Ciao, Scott! And thanks so much for the kind words. 🙂
Thanks Frank for posting another authentic italian recipe! I searched around for the best authentic recipe for Fettucine alfredo and it is few that appears to be truly authentic. Your stood out so I included it in my list of 18 authentic italian pasta recipes
I’m happy to see this version of a loved favorite of mine. I knew this was a simple tasteful recipe. The version I’ve read would make your head spin. But I am sure you have. I did find a recipe many years back before the computer age. This entails the components of butter, cheese and cream. Not as much. It was cream butter and cheese together then whip in cream then add to cooked pasta. But reading this I do not need cream. Saying this my meal which will be in a few days I had planned will do this version you have suggested. I knew the restaurant versions were putting too much in this simple classic recipe. Thank you.
Yes, indeed, Elaine. I’m familiar with those versions! I actually don’t dislike them, but they are quite heavy. I bet you’ll like the original much better.
Yes, I love this version, simple, easy and sooo tasty. I knew this version was way better than the others… Thank you for this.
Thank you for your website and all the knowledge. I do have one question though. I cooked Thisbe for dinner and had a little trouble making it creamy. It seemed a little buttery to me, is this a normal flavor?
Well, I’d say yes. The “creaminess” refers to the texture provided mostly by the melted cheese, not really to the taste. If the difficulty was getting a creamy texture, you might try adding a bit of pasta water to loosen things up, and continue mixing until the cheese until it’s melted into a kind of sauce.
Pasta with Butter and Cheese or Fettucchine Alfredo I love it, it`s so delicious but I would never ad cream, it waters down the fine taste of the butter. Personally I prepare this dish with browned butter. Yes it`s not original and unkommen in Italian cooking to brown butter, but it`s more flavorful than normal butter and the nutty taste is really deeper, so you can use less of it. Makes it more healthy :D. For Pasta I hardly recommend Rustichella d’abruzzo Pasta al Uovo. It`s a bit expensiv but worth the money… you can really taste the eggs in it.
Ciao Frank…yes indeed, this is the “real deal”…read about this pasta years ago and only make it when we go to Italy…because I can’t get Italian butter here in Vancouver or if I can, it’s at least $20.00CDN for 1/2 lb! Although…our butcher is bringing in butter from New Zealand that the chefs are going crazy for because of it’s higher butter fat content, which, when mixed with the hot noodles, cheese and perhaps a drop of pasta cooking water should go all creamy and yummy! How can something so simple taste so amazing? Here’s hoping the N.Z. stuff works out…otherwise it may be a year before I can enjoy this again!
Wow, that Italian stuff is one pricey butter. Do let us know how you like the NZ variety. Sounds promising.
Oh, but I do love this dish! I have not made it in some time. Having just undergone shoulder surgery, I think it is time to put in my dinner order with my “kitchen knave,” otherwise known as my husband, Bart!
Indeed, the original has no cream, but was made with first quality butter and cheese. I had always heard that Italians and others, unable to source fine quality cheese and butter here “in America,” resorted to adding cream to achieve (at least to some degree) the creamy texture so prized in Italy.
I recall when I first found Delitia butter here in Los Angeles I asked Lidia Bastianich just how I should use it, where it might be shown off to best effect. She responded “Don’t cook it.” She suggested tossing it in a pasta dish, as you have, or spreading it atop bread. It really is special. I am thrilled to see you using it. I love to add a bit to my Cacio e Pepe. As always, Frank, thanks for another wonderful post!
Now to find that kitchen knave…
I remember eating pasta col burro as a kid. It really has little to do with most alfredo sauces you see in jars over here…
We also weren’t aware of the connection between pasta burro e parmigiano and the pasta alfredo here in the U.S. Like other readers have commented, at our house pasta burro and parmigiano is great for a quick meal, and for children and even sometimes adults with a more restricted palate.
Interesting about the cream.
I do think I prefer the original recipe, nice!
thank you for sharing this. Its a big help during class discussions with my students! looking forward to using this recipe in my class!
And thank you for your comment. Glad to be of help!
I love the simplicity of this dish. My sister gave me the ‘history’ lesson several years ago and then proceeded to tell me she always makes this — I never knew!. She kept this all to herself for so long….Well I’m happy I know now and that you shared this for everyone to enjoy.
Well, now the secret it out, lol!
Ah, such a delicious classic 🙂
Couldn’t agree more, Alessandra!
This is on my “To Do” list for the weekend.
Great, Arthur! Do let us know how you like it!
HISTORY OF ALFREDO DI LELIO CREATOR IN 1908 OF “FETTUCCINE ALL’ALFREDO”, NOW SERVED BY THE GRANDCHILDREN, ALFREDO E ISA DI LELIO, AT THE RESTAURANT “IL VERO ALFREDO” IN ROME, PIAZZA AUGUSTO IMPERATORE 30
With reference of your article we have the pleasure to tell you the history of our grandfather Alfredo Di Lelio, who is the creator of “fettuccine all’Alfredo” in 1908 in restaurant run by his mother Angelina in Rome, Piazza Rosa (Piazza disappeared in 1910 following the construction of the Galleria Colonna / Sordi).
Alfredo di Lelio opened the restaurant “Alfredo” in 1914 in Rome, after leaving the restaurant of his mother Angelina. In this local spread the fame, first to Rome and then in the world, of “fettuccine all’Alfredo”.
In 1943, during the war, Di Lelio sold the restaurant to others outside his family.
In 1950 Alfredo Di Lelio decided to reopen with his son Armando his restaurant in Piazza Augusto Imperatore n.30 “Il Vero Alfredo” (“Alfredo di Roma”), which is now managed by his nephews Alfredo and Ines, with the famous “gold cutlery”” (fork and spoon gold) donated in 1927 by two well-known American actors Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks (in gratitude for the hospitality).
See also the site of “Il Vero Alfredo” http://www.alfredo-roma.it.
We must clarify that other restaurants “Alfredo” in Rome do not belong to the family tradition of “Il Vero Alfredo” in Rome.
We inform that the restaurant “Il Vero Alfredo” is in the registry of “Historic Shops of Excellence” of the City of Rome Capitale.
Best regards Alfredo e Ines Di Lelio
Thank you very much for this information, Alfredo and Ines. We are all privileged to hear from you.
This was always good stuff and a favorite of so many. I never have eaten much of it for the sake of calories but what’s not to love about it. The Italian version which I was unfamiliar with with until now, sounds lighter and I think better. I will have to try that. I’m a sucker for cheese.
Thanks for the history lesson, I learned a lot.
And thank you for your comment, Vicki! The Italian version is most definitely worth a try.
Solo all’apparenza semplicissime ….Fatte come le presenti tu , con ingredienti giusti, fanno rifuggire qualunque dieta almeno per una volta ! Chissà se è vera la leggenda delle posate d’oro regalate ad Alfredo dalla famosa coppia di attori americani Mary Pickford e Douglas Fairbanks…Si diceva che aggiungessero sapore al piatto…. Buona settimana Frank, un abbraccio !
Credo che sia vero. Vedi, il nipote ha lasciato un commento facendo riferimento alle famose posate d’oro le cui si trovano ancora nel suo ristorante…
Any idea what causes the “funny taste”? That’s indeed some nice butter. I didn’t know about Alfredo until relatively recently, when I decided to find the origin of the dish, which was unknown to me when I lived in Italy. The lovely golden fettuccine look really nice in your Deruta plates.
No idea, really. I would guess preservatives of one sort or another. Thanks so much for your comment, Simona!
I had always heard it was an American-invention, but I think that’s the cream version you speak of. Italians have always given pastina or pasta of some sort with a little parmigiano and butter to the young ones as an introduction to more complex sauces. If I don’t have anything else to prepare for dinner, I can almost always find those ingredients in my kitchen.
Yep, butter and Parmesan have saved me many a time!
I never knew the original version! I knew only the version with cream as well as egg yolks that one must take pains not to cook. Thanks for posting! You remain the great educator of Italian-American cuisine in the blogosphere.
Thanks for your readership, Leonardo!
I love this recipe and I actually ate there many times in the 70’s and 80’s with quite a few Italians. Bon Apetito.
Ah, back in the heyday …. :=)