So Exactly How Did Poor Alfredo Get Sauced?
It was about a hundred years ago that a guy in Rome opened an eponymous little restaurant. He was doing a good business, raising a nice family. Then his place got discovered by American tourists and the next thing you know, he was sauced. Funny thing, though; after he got sauced, everybody in America knew his name, but he remains largely forgotten in his native country.
I'm talking, of course, about Alfredo di Lelio and the ubiquitous creation that bears his name, “Alfredo sauce.” It stares at you from restaurant menus all over the United States. And not just so-called “Italian” restaurants. Nearly everyplace that serves food serves something in “Alfredo sauce.” It lurks in jars on grocery store shelves and it lies in wait in frozen packages. There are hundreds of recipes for it in cookbooks and online resources.
In reality, it shouldn't even exist. And in Italy – the country of Alfredo's birth – it doesn't.
So how did Alfredo get sauced? In simple, “Clue”-like terms, the actor did it in Hollywood with a fork and a spoon.
Poor Alfredo. His wife was pregnant and having a hard time keeping anything on her stomach. All he wanted was for her to be able to eat something. And so he served her a simple dish bland enough for her sensitive stomach to tolerate. He made her a nice plate of pasta in bianco. White pasta. Pasta without any sauce, just some butter and cheese. Also called pasta al burro, it was a common dish for people in her condition. You gave it to your kids when they had upset tummies.
What do Americans feed pregnant women with morning sickness or kids with upset stomachs? Toast, right? With a little butter? Or maybe some saltine crackers. Something easy to digest that will sit lightly on the stomach. Well, they don't do toast or crackers in Italy. They do pasta al burro.
Does your favorite cookbook include a recipe for buttered toast? I didn't think so. And nobody in Italy had to come up with a recipe for pasta in bianco. It was just something you made by boiling up some pasta and putting a little butter and cheese on it.
Alfredo didn't have it on the menu. What restaurateur in his right mind would make a special out of the equivalent of buttered toast? Alfredo pumped up the butter and the cheese for his wife so the dish would have a little more flavor, but it was still just pasta al burro, only doppio burro (double butter), or maybe triplo burro (triple butter) if Alfredo was feeling generous. Nothing special, okay?
And then Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, honeymooning in Rome, happened upon Alfredo's little place. They saw what he was feeding his wife and they wanted some. “Okay,” Alfredo probably thought, scratching his head, “give the crazy Americans what they want!” And he slapped down a plate of pasta without sauce. Whatever makes i turisti happy.
Now, unless you're ninety years of age or more or maybe a film historian, the names “Douglas Fairbanks” and”Mary Pickford” are likely meaningless to you. But in the silent movie era, he was the “Thief of Baghdad,” he was “Zorro,” he was “Robin Hood,” he was the undisputed swashbuckling “King of Hollywood.” She was his new wife and “America's Sweetheart” in her own right. Along with Charlie Chaplin, they were the movie industry in America, founding members of United Artists studio and of the Motion Picture Academy. By comparison, they made Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie look like relative unknowns.
So when this power couple lifted forkfuls of Alfredo's plain, simple pasta dish to their lips and pronounced it the most unique and delicious thing they had ever eaten.....well, what are you gonna do? They had photographs taken of themselves with Alfredo and they presented him with a golden fork and spoon to mount on his wall. Then they went back to Hollywood and sang the praises of “Fettuccine Alfredo” to everybody they knew – and they knew a lot of people.
Soon, the Hollywood elite were storming Italy in search of “Fettuccine Alfredo.” And unless they went to Alfredo's place – “Alfredo alla Scrofa” – in Rome, nobody knew what they were talking about. “Che cosa è questo 'fettuccine Alfredo?'” So they'd describe the dish. Mystified waiters and cooks would look at them strangely and say, “You want the Italian equivalent of buttered toast? What are you, sick or something?” Or words to that effect. Only Alfredo – who knew a cash cow when he saw it – had the good sense to put the dish on his menu. And that's pretty much the way it remains today.
But how did Alfredo get sauced?
Well, Americans have never been much for leaving well enough alone. No matter how good something is, Americans feel it can always be “improved” upon. And so it is with “Alfredo sauce.”
A properly made dish of what Alfredo actually served creates its own “sauce” by means of blending butter and cheese with hot pasta and a little of the water in which the pasta was cooked. The cheese and butter melt together and, when vigorously tossed with the hot pasta and water, coat the noodles in a rich, creamy “sauce.” But Alfredo, to his dying day, never made “Alfredo sauce.” It simply doesn't exist in the Italian culinary world.
So Americans had to improvise. They figured out a way to “improve” Alfredo's common preparation. They added cream. Why? Let me emphatically state something here and now: There is absolutely, positively, unequivocally no cream in an “authentic” preparation of what we know as “Fettuccine Alfredo.” So why the pollution? A lot of it has to do with the quality of butter Americans serve themselves.
Most commercially produced American butter contains no more than eighty percent butterfat and has a water content of between fifteen and twenty percent. European butter, on the other hand, generally contains more butterfat – up to eighty-three percent – and less water, making it richer and creamier.
And then there's the cheese. Alfredo probably never even thought of using anything but Parmigiano-Reggiano. Why would he? It's “the undisputed King of Cheeses.” There are cheaper alternatives being marketed under the “Parmesan cheese” label, but they are just that – cheap imitations of the real thing.
So, after the great discovery by Fairbanks and Pickford, American cooks started getting requests for “Fettuccine Alfredo.” They figured out how to make it – but somehow it didn't taste the same. It wasn't as rich and creamy. And what's the easiest way to make something creamy? Add cream to it, of course! So now, rather than let the rich flavor develop naturally from using high quality butter and superior cheese, American cooks threw together cheap butter and cheap cheese and made it “creamy” by adding cream.
Besides, you can't very well package the results of the intermingling of butter and cheese with hot pasta and a little water, now can you? But if you dump the butter and cheese in a pot, stir in a few glugs of cream and cook it all down, now you've got a “sauce;” something you can put in a jar with a label: “Alfredo Sauce.”
And that's how poor old Alfredo got sauced.
Nowadays, when you visit almost any restaurant in America and order something “Alfredo,” it's a pretty sure bet that the kitchen is going to be pouring “Alfredo” out of a jar or, at best, making it up from a recipe that includes cream. Some places further adulterate it by mixing in nutmeg, chives, and any other number of “flavor enhancers,” simply because Americans have an insatiable urge to complicate simple food in the name of “flavor.” But no matter what they add to it, it bears no reasonable resemblance to the wonderfully rich – and ridiculously simple – traditional dish that Alfredo served to his wife – and later to his patrons – at his ristorante on the via della Scrofa.
If you want the real deal, your best bet is to bypass the restaurants and skip the jarred, frozen, and packaged varieties of “sauce” found in your local megamarket and make it yourself. Here's a recipe, courtesy of Russell Bellanca, owner of Alfredo 100:
1 lb. of fresh, very thin fettuccine noodles
6 oz. butter, unsalted
6 oz. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (aged 24 months), grated
Cook the fettuccine noodles in 1 gallon of salted boiling water for three minutes.
At the same time, cube or slice the butter into a warmed serving bowl. Drain the pasta, reserving a small amount of the cooking water. Pour the pasta into the serving bowl with the butter and immediately top with cheese. Using a large spoon and fork, toss and spin the noodles for two or three minutes, adding reserved pasta cooking water as required, until the noodles are thoroughly coated and a smooth, silky sauce has developed. Plate the preparation and serve immediately.
(Cheese lovers may want to sprinkle additional grated cheese on top.)
You can substitute dry pasta for fresh, of course, but don't cheap up on any of the ingredients. High quality pasta, like De Cecco or Barilla, will taste and perform better than generic store brands. European-style butter, like Plugra or Kerrygold, will impart a richer flavor than store brands or even national brands like Land 'o Lakes. And there is absolutely no substitute for Parmigiano-Reggiano. Domestic “Parmesan” doesn't cut it, and the dry, grated, cheese-flavored sawdust abomination in the green cans shouldn't even be considered. The technical trick to perfect preparation is all in the wrist. The biggest part of the “show” that Alfredo used to put on tableside when serving his dish was the tossing of the pasta with the butter and cheese to form the silky, smooth, rich, creamy “sauce” for which he became famous. Anything less than vigorously tossing and spinning for two or three minutes will result in lumpy, clumpy bits of cheese in a pool of melted butter. If you don't have the time, the technique, or the ingredients to do it right, you're better off with the junk in a jar.
And if you find yourself in Italy don't ask for the culinary equivalent of buttered toast unless you're not feeling well. Or unless you're dining at Alfredo's in Rome. Anyplace else and they'll just look at you funny and say, “stai scherzando? Devi essere ubriaco!” To which you can reply, “I'm not kidding and I'm not drunk. I'd just like to be a little sauced. Like Alfredo.”