Fettuccine Alfredo! There are a few misconceptions surrounding this dish that have gravely devalued and disgraced it in current popular American culinary culture. I’m not sure what kind of regard it bears from Italian food lovers (every least one of them) but as I, an Italian and a food lover, and a chef, have never really heard much about it until I came to the U.S., I’m just going to assume that, in Italy, Fettuccine Alfredo is either unknown or given marginal regard if any.
Let’s start with the name. The English pronunciation changes the sound of the final vowel in ‘fettuccine’ from the Italian sound ‘ae’ to ‘ee’ and it seems that, perhaps because of that, at some point, someone, somehow, began changing the spelling to in turn reflect the Italian pronunciation of that English sound of the letter ‘e’ to ‘i’ – ‘fettuccini’. Go figure… But, as baffling as this may be, I personally am not hung up at all on how you wanna spell and or pronounce foreign words so long as it’s settled for one official way. So I had to check the dictionary for correctness before writing – and what do you know? You can spell it either way! Fettuccine or Fettuccini! What’s up with that? I’m sorry but I’ve got to put the foot down here and say you can’t have it both ways! Give me a break! I give you a hand and you take… both? Settle for one, already! Please! And in making that decision, allow me to offer a little help here and just begin by doing the right thing and spell it the one and only right way I know, FettuccinE Alfredo, and move on. More on this later. Not over – not by a very long shot…
Then there’s the question: is it an actual Italian recipe or is it an Italian-American recipe? Tough question to answer.
Fettuccine Alfredo were in fact invented in 1908 Rome by Alfredo Di Lelio, acclaimed chef-owner of the homonymous restaurant. Chef Di Lelio’s recipe for the sauce called for butter and fresh parmesan. In Italy, that’s known simply as “pasta al burro e parmigiano” or “pasta in bianco” – ‘white pasta’. It’s the simplest – most boring, if you will – pasta recipe you could think of; most of us know it well and made it at least once – Americans and Italians alike – or anyone in the world for that matter.
But, as it turns out, Fettuccine Alfredo is not all that simple nor is it at all boring.
An ancestor of the dish was first mentioned in the 15th century gastronomy book – landmark of the transition from medieval to renaissance cuisine – Libro de Arte Coquinaria, by Martino de Rossi or Maestro Martino di Como. It was catalogued under the heading: “Per fare macaroni romaneschi” – “How to make roman style macaroni”. Hailed by his contemporaries as the Prince of Cooks, Martino di Como was arguably the first celebrity chef in the western world. He was the chef at the roman palazzo of the papal chamberlain, the Patriarch of Aquileia – a personal chef like me! – and he cooked just some 25 kilometers from my hometown! How serendipitous.
Therefore, as a roman himself, Mr. Di Lelio’s take on the dish is indisputably most authoritative as a well qualified chef’s interpretation of his own local culinary culture. In fact, as great chefs do, he reinvented the recipe taking it one step further. Tantalizing the name as “Fettuccine al Triplo Burro” – “Triple Butter Fettuccine” – and rigorously using only the freshest parmesan, it’s evident that what Mr. Di Lelio was going for is the richest cream possible resulting from these two basic ingredients. In addition to this, he employed a very dramatic presentation at the service table next to the customer. With gold utensils he would mix the fettuccine with butter and parmesan adding them gradually in an alternate fashion “waving the golden cutlery with grand gestures, like an orchestra conductor”, thus effectively emulsifying the two parts with the pasta’s cooking liquid – a technique called ‘mantecare’. The dish and its spectacular service became so popular that it eventually earned the name of “Maestosissime Fettuccine Alfredo” – “Most Majestic Fettuccine Alfredo”. So popular that the great silent era Hollywood actors, spouses, and co-founders of the iconic United Artists independent movie productions studios, Douglas Fairbanks (Tarzan) and Mary Pickford (Polyanna), really loved that dish and the man Alfredo himself so much they invited him to the United States to open a restaurant and present his famous pasta dish.
Maestosissime Fettuccine Alfredo.
Now, Italians reading this will certainly let their jaws drop, roll their eyes, and say: “wait… all this for… freaggin’ pasta in bianco? – the one you make when you either have nothing in the fridge or you really don’t feel like cooking anything for your kids?” Hold your eyeballs, I say, my dear fellow countrymen and women. Pasta with butter and parmesan – or pasta in bianco – is typically served to kids here in the United States too. Nobody gets excited about freaggin’ pasta with butter and parmesan – believe me. It’s not that bad here. Trust me… I’d tell you.
However, what should be taken into consideration is that, besides those having been very different times in which home refrigerator units weren’t yet mass produced – they had been barely invented – you might also guess that parmesan cheese and butter – as good sources of protein and fat – were more attractive ingredients than they are today; and as even pasta might have been quiet a novelty in the U.S., my feeling is that chef Di Lelio had worked out of fettuccine, butter, and parmesan cheese something that turned out to be much more exciting than just pasta in bianco.
The theatricality of the service, the richness of the sauce, the times themselves at the crossroads of the Gilded Age and Prohibition – the height of the mass-migration period of 1900-1914 that saw the rise of New York-Italian culture – endowed this ancient, simple recipe born from the pages of chef Maestro Martino di Como’s book into the hands of chef Alfredo Di Lelio with a certain unique power to delight and captivate restaurant patrons of the new world with its rich, spectacularly delicious, and ancient art.
All of which – I’m sorry to say, folks – cannot be repeated and only barely fathom, nowadays – much less appreciated. The times have changed and theatrical presentations at the table have become obsolete – bothersome, even – and following the fat-free boom of the 70’s and 80’s butter and cheese became demons to be exorcised (into carbs, of all things). Meantime, modern import regulations turned Parmesan into a near luxury item spurring the growth in manufacturing of alternatives and imitations – all regrettably inferior (though, to my advice, some do deserve respect as well accomplished cheeses in their own right – just don’t pass them as Parmesan, please). So the Maestosissime Fettuccine Alfredo have gradually disappeared from the menus replaced by an oversimplified version involving heavy cream (often undercooked) and some parmesan-like cheese – and, it seems, the improbable spelling: Fettuccini Alfredo.
This remnant of a once glorious, ancient Roman recipe is today available only in the most unappealing “old-school” Italian restaurants – you know, the kind with red and white checkered table cloths, corn oil and vinegar cruet setting, shaker of grated “parmesan cheese”, straw basket fitted fiasco of spoiled old chianti, and, of course, the toothpicks dispenser. That restaurant makes us all cringe. Yet, as we know those restaurants are inexorably disappearing, I challenge you to say you don’t love them.
Because, like most things that make up American culture, old school Italian restaurant Fettuccini Alfredo is the natural offspring from a marriage of cultures, the sauce from a proverbial melting pot; and its slight spelling transformation, as if an American, perhaps second generation Italian, had dictated the word to an Italian native, perhaps their old immigrant parent who, having forgotten the correct spelling, didn’t know better than transcribing it on the menu exactly as he heard it, is reflective of this great civilization and therefore honorable to be called by its name: Fettuccini Alfredo!
Just reduce the cream by at least half, please, will you…