Sunday, May 20, 2007

Apple #243: Fettuccine Alfredo

So the other day, my friend and I were talking about Fettuccine Alfredo. Made with butter, cream, and cheese, it sounded to us like maybe the dish had been influenced by French cuisine, which tends to use sauces with lots of butter and cream. "Maybe Fettuccine Alfredo is Northern Italian, then," my friend said. "I'd be curious to know what part of Italy it comes from." So another Daily Apple entry is born.

  • The story goes that Fettuccine Alfredo was first made in Rome.
  • Specifically, the recipe was conceived by Alfredo di Lelio, whose Roman restaurant was called Alfredo all'Augusteo.

Alfredo di Lelio
(Photo posted by Bill Carson at

  • Some say the dish was first made in the 1920s, others say 1914. In either case, I had assumed the dish would be much older than this.
  • Legend further has it that Hollywood megastars of the time, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, went to Alfredo's restaurant while on their honeymoon and ordered the signature fettuccine.

D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. These four together founded United Artists in 1919.
(Photo from UA but posted at Kipnotes)

  • Before leaving Rome, the famous newlyweds presented chef di Lelio with a golden pasta fork and spoon in thanks for the delicious food. Journalists reported the heck out of this, and it wasn't long before restaurants in America were trying to duplicate the dish enjoyed by their beloved Hollywood stars.

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, married in 1920, divorced in 1936.
(Photo from Carpe Vino)

  • The dish faded from popularity through the War years because not many people had heavy cream, butter, and fresh cheese at hand. In the 1950s, other Hollywood stars of the day (Ava Gardner, Tyrone Power, Richard Burton, Liz Taylor, etc.) were vacationing around the world, and when they got to Rome, they ate at Alfredo's restaurant. The charismatic restaurateur convinced them to try his signature dish, and the stars of the 1950s loved it, too. When they got back to the States, they started asking for it at their favorite restaurants. Chefs in the US who had not heard of Fettuccine Alfredo scrambled to learn about it and offer it to their star patrons.
  • One source says that Alfredo's original dish never included the heavy cream but that the 1950s stars demanded it in the States. But most other sources say that heavy cream was part of the original dish, and that it was US chefs who altered it by substituting egg yolks for the cream. Most recipes today will tell you to use heavy cream -- especially if you have fresh Fettuccine.

Fettuccine Alfredo has become one of those dishes that everybody makes, and everybody makes a bit differently. To my way of thinking, this indicates the dish is a good one, since everybody adapts it to their own taste (like potato salad). So I can't advocate one recipe for Fettuccine Alfredo as The Authentic Recipe. But I can say that the following recipe seems to embody the original concept:

  • 10 oz fresh fettuccine
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan), at room temperature, plus extra cheese to pass at the table
  • 1 cup heavy cream, very lightly whipped
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
Timing is crucial for this dish. Ideally, the pasta and the sauce should be ready at the same time. Fresh fettuccine cooks as quickly as 2 minutes, while dry pasta takes longer.

  • Heat salted water for pasta to bring to a boil.
  • Begin making sauce relative to cooking time of the pasta.
  • In a pan large enough to hold the sauce and all the pasta together, melt butter over low heat.
  • Slowly add lightly-whipped heavy cream to the pan, whisking continually.
  • Stir continuously until the sauce is hot and slightly reduced.
  • Still stirring, slowly add grated cheese.
  • The sauce should thicken without becoming gloppy.
  • Add salt and pepper to taste.
  • (At this point, pasta should be cooked)
  • Drain pasta and add it to the sauce. Mix well.
  • Serve with grated Parmesan to pass at the table.
Recipe adapted from Jo Bettoja's recipe from In a Roman Kitchen: Timeless Recipes from the Eternal City.

  • Tourists who have been to Italy and asked for Fettuccine Alfredo there report receiving puzzled looks from their waiters. Apparently, when the dish is described to them, the waiters proclaim that it sounds entirely too fatty and unappetizing, and surely it must be an American bastardization of something else.
  • But, no. It comes from Rome.
  • Which brings us to the other part of the question, which is whether Fettuccine Alfredo is a northern or southern Italian dish.
  • The answer is not as easily arrived at as you might think. Some people say that Rome is part of "middle Italy" -- neither north nor south. A lot of guidebooks include Rome in their list of places to visit when touring southern Italy. Very few sites I visited describe Rome as a northern city. So it would seem that Rome is more southern than northern.

To my untutored eye, Rome appears to be smack in the middle of the country. But according to what I've read elsewhere, Rome considered part of Southern Italy.
(Interactive map from Yahoo Travel)

  • In terms of cuisine, it's even less clear-cut. Northern Italian cuisine is characterized by meats, butters, creams -- expensive ingredients that poorer Italians who lived in the south did not have. Southern Italian cuisine uses tomatoes, fish, pasta -- the cheaper stuff that nonetheless became tasty dishes.
  • For a long, long time, Rome was the place where cattle were slaughtered, so a lot of meat dishes were served in Rome. This sounds like Roman food would be considered more northern, doesn't it?
  • But, more than one site says, since people came to Rome from all across Italy, Roman food reflects a combination of both Northern and Southern influences.
  • So if you wanted to be diplomatic about it, you could say that Fettuccine Alfredo is a truly Roman dish in that its sauce comes from a Northern Italian tradition, while the pasta and the dish's simplicity speak to a Southern Italian sensibility.

e.rcps, Fettuccine Alfredo with Cheese, Cream and Butter
Food, Fettuccine Alfredo
Food Timeline, history notes, muffins to yogurt
Lidias, Fettuccine Alfredo
John F. Mariani, "Everybody Likes Italian Food," American Heritage Magazine, December 1989
Yahoo!, Does Alfredo sauce exist in Italy?
Life in Italy: Southern Italy by Train, Food and Culture, Southern Italy
IMDB, Douglas Fairbanks biography, American Experience, Douglas Fairbanks

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