Fettuccine Alfredo is one of the most popular pasta dishes in the United States and has represented for years a real symbol of Italian cuisine for several generations of Americans.
Still today the dish can be found in overseas restaurants and on the shelves of supermarkets, as a ready-made sauce in a jar, or Tetra pack, or simply pre-packaged with pre-cooked pasta. Yet the dish is practically unknown in Italy (or at least outside of Rome).
The name given to this combination is not at all false, as some might think, but reveals its Italian origins. The famous Fettuccine Alfredo was born in Rome by Alfredo Di Lelio in 1908 in the restaurant operated by his mother Angelina located in Piazza Rosa. Today, the location has become a photo gallery dedicated to the great Italian actor Alberto Sordi.
The birth of this rich combination is described by the family’s descendants: “It all started when his wife Ines gave birth to their firstborn. The woman was left in extreme physical weakness after the birth of the little Alfredo II and her husband, worried about her health, did everything to make her regain strength with healthy and nutritious foods. I am not certain it was all that healthy, but I’ll buy Mr. Alfredo’s good intentions.
It was here that the idea of the dish was born and eventually became famous all over the world. Alfredo prepared some fettuccine using semola flour, kneaded by hand, cooked and blended with fresh farm butter and Parmesan. Once that was done, he offered a prayer to St. Anna (identified as the protector of the pregnant women in the Catholic liturgy) and served this dish to his wife Ines stating: ‘If you don’t like them, I’ll eat them all!’. She not only ate them with evident pleasure but even suggested to include them to the menu of their small restaurant.
Up to this point, however, there was nothing extraordinary: pasta drowned in butter and parmesan cheese had existed in Italy for at least five centuries, it had been the only way to eat pasta because tomato had not been used as a pasta condiment just yet. Alfredo di Lelio’s only “invention” was to propose a dish that provoked connotations of hospital food in the menu of his restaurant. The fortune of the dish came a few years later thanks to a restaurant visit of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, two Hollywood stars, who enjoyed this specialty in the Via Della Scrofa club, the new restaurant that Alfredo had opened in 1914.
These two names may not have much relevance today, but at the time of silent cinema, they were at least as famous as Charlie Chaplin. Douglas Fairbanks, known as “The King of Hollywood”, was also one of the founders of the Academy, the Oscars of today, as well as one of the initial partners of the Universal Artist. Mary Pickford was instead known as “The girlfriend of America” and is considered one of the most important and influential actresses of American cinema.
Alfredo’s fettuccine inebriated the two actors to such an extent that they brought the memory back to Hollywood and, on a subsequent visit to Rome in 1927, they offered Alfredo a gift of two solid gold cutlery engraved with a dedication: “To Alfredo the King of the noodles “. From that moment on Alfredo’s reputation reached stardom connotations.
The fame alone was sufficient to ensure the success in the States of this very simple dish, made with simple steps and 3 ingredients. And since then, numerous personalities from the world of cinema, sport and politics, made it a policy of stopping at Alfredo’s thus increasing his reputation. In brief, a common dish such as butter and parmesan pasta, which was not a novelty and was not linked to any particular territory, had to wait for the consecration of two celebrities to obtain recognition overseas. Even more strange considering that in the same years in Italy the panorama of typical regional dishes was emerging, with the myriad of condiments to associate with pasta.
A consecration that has also entered the recipe books: the recipe is reported in some publications since the 1940s, without mentioning Alfredo, but only the incremental quantities of the butter used.
So from the Tagliatelle with butter of “The treasures of Cucina Italiana” of 1948, To the double butter Tagliatelle of “Annabella in the kitchen” of 1964, to arrive at the Fettuccine with triple butter of the great gastronomic writer Luigi Carnacina in 1961. Gourmand and enologist Luigi Veronelli in 1985, reclaimed the dish with a minor variation from the original. All of them were, of course very reach in butterfat, along with aged Parmigiano which increased the fat level and a delightful coating to the palate. As you can imagine, in the United States we are known to reformulate food, and Alfredo has taken a modification as well. In any restaurant, especially franchised units, the original rich farm butter has been replaced by thick and flour-rich with milk concoction, with lots of inexpensive grated cheese sprinkled on top. I just wanted you to know that it did not begin that way.
And so dear friends, a brief story of the dish Alfredo. Enjoy it in whatever form you see best, and always with cautious moderation, while I will still search for it back in Italy.