Fettuccine AlfredoAlthough combinations of pasta, butter and cheese were enjoyed by ancient cooks, the invention of this particular dish is often attributed to Alfredo’s [restaurant] in Rome, 1914. Why? Alfredo Di Lelio, with a little help from Hollywood, made it famous.
Here’s the generally accepted ” but fictional creation” story:“Fettuccine Alfredo….A dish of fettuccine egg noodles mixed with butter, Parmesan cheese, and cream. The dish has been a staple of Italian-American restaurants since the mid-1960s. It was created in 1914 by Alfred Di Lelio, who opened a restaurant in Rome, Italy, under his first name on the Via della Scrofa in 1910. The dish supposedly helped restore the appetite of his wife after she gave birth to their son. The original dish was made with a very rich triple butter Di Lelio made himself, with only the heart of the best parmigiano. Fettuccine all’Alfredo became famous after Hollywood movie actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford ate the dish at Alfredo’s restaurant while on their honeymoon in 1927…After World War II Di Lelio moved to the Piazza Augusto Imperatore, and in the 1950s his restaurant became a mecca for visiting Americans, most of whom came to sample fettuccini Alfredo…Because most cooks could not reproduce the richness of the original butter, today the dish almost always contains heavy cream.”
Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, John F. Mariani [Lebhar-Friedman:New York] 1999 (p. 126)
“The story goes that while honeymooning in Rome in 1927, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford dined almost daily on this rich pasta at Alfredo’s restaurant, and in gratitude, presented restaurateur Alfredo Di Lelio with a golden pasta fork and spoon at the end of their stay. Journalists picked up the story and spread news of Fettuccine Alfredo across the Atlantic. Before long, American chefs were improvising. According to Marie Simmons…food writer who is of Italian heritage, an authentic Fettuccine Alfredo is not tricked out with cream or mushrooms or green peas or garlic. It’s a mix of sweet creamery butter, Parmigiano-Reggiano, homemade fettuccine, and black pepper. Nothing more, nothing less.”
The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century, Jean Anderson [Clarkson Potter:New York] 1997 (p. 213)
Of course, most dishes are not created, they evolve:
“Cheese is the earliest condiment for pasta of which we have documentation. Even before the earliest recipes were written, cheese with pasta was the delight of the bon vivants of the Middle Ages…Present in all the medieval collections of recipes that feature pasta, grated cheese was often mixed with spices…”These tortelli must be yellow and strongly spiced, serve them in bowls with plenty of pepper and grated cheese…Although it was abandoned by the elite beginning in the seventeenth century, the mixture of cheese and spices continued in popular use. Pasta was served with a carpet of well-aged grated cheese in taverns frequented by Pere Labat in the turn of the eighteenth century.”
Pasta: The Story of a Universal Food, Silvano Serventi & Francoise Sabban [Columbia University Press:New York] 2000 (p. 258-9)
A survey of Fettuccine Alfredo recipes through time
These recipes may not be called Fettuccine Alfredo, but they would certainly recreate something close to the original dish. The earliest recipe we have attributing Alfredo to this dish is dated 1928, a year after the famous Fairbanks/Pickford encounter. The emphasis and success of this dish is on Alfredo, a culinary showman. Not the restorative properties created for an ailing wife.
 “To dress Macaroni with Parmesan Cheese Note: This was not an early version of Macaroni and cheese, a recipe for that was also in the book. Lumps of butter were rolled in flour to keep them from sticking together in the larder. This is not a bechamel.
Boil four ounces of macaroni till it is quite tender and lay it on a sieve to drain. Then put it in a tossing pan with about a gill of good cream, a lump of butter rolled in flour, boil it for five minutes. Pour it on a plate, lay all over it parmesan cheese toasted. Send to the table on a water plate, for it soon goes cold.”
The Experienced English Housekeeper, Elizabeth Raffald, introduction by Roy Shipperbottom [Southover Press:East Sussex] 1997 (p. 144)
“84. Maccheroni Alla Frncese (Macaroni French Style)
I say French style because I found this recipe in a cookbook of that nation, but as often happens with printed recipes, which rarely coincide with what must be done in practice, I had to change the proportions of the ingredients as follows:
300 grams (about 10-1/2 ounces) of Neapolitan-style long macaroni
70 grams (about 2 1/3 ounces) of butter
70 grams (about 2 1/3 ounces) of Gruyere cheese
40 grams (about 1 1/3 ounces) of Parmesan cheese
a small pot of broth
Cook the macaroni until two-thirds done in moderately salted water. Put the broth on the fire, bring it to a boil and then add the grated Gruyere cheese and the butter, stirring well with a wooden spoon to help them dissolve. When this is done, immediately pour the broth over the drained, partly cooked macaroni. I say immediately, because otherwise the Gruyere sinks to the bottom and sticks together. Keep the macaroni on the fire until completely cooked, making sure that they do not absorb all the sauce. When you remove them from the stover, season the macaroni with the Parmesan cheese. Serve with more Parmesan on the side for those who like strong tastes and prefer their pasta sharp. This, like macaroni Bolognese style, is a first course that comes in hand in family cooking; you need only a small pot of broth from the day before, so you can save the time and expense of making a fresh meat broth. If you prefer the dish meatless, substitute milk for the broth.”
Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, Pelegrino Artusi, translated by Mutha Baca and Stephen Sartrelli [Marsilio Publishers:New York] 1891, 1997 (p. 92-3)
“Maccaroni, With Cream
Boil one pound of macaroni, and when done, cut it up in three inch lengths, and put in into a stewpan, with four ounces of fresh butter, four ounces of grated Parmesan cheese, and a similar quantity of Gruyere cheese also grated, and a gill of good cream; season with mignonette-pepper and salt, and toss the whole well together over the stove-fire until well mixed and quite hot, then shake it up for a few minutes to make the cheese spin, so as to give it a fibrous appearance, when drawn up with a fork. The macaroni, when dished up, must be garnished round the base with fleurons of pastry, and then served.”
Francatelli’s Modern Cook: A Practical Guide to the Culinary Art in All Its Branches, Charles Elme Francatelli [David McKay:Philadelphia] 1895? (p. 397) [Note: Chef Francatelli was in service to Queen Victoria.]
Macaroni with Butter and Cheese
(Maccheroni al Burro)
Boil and drain the macaroni. Take four tablespoons of table-butter, three tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese, add to the macaroni in the saucepan, mix well over the fire, and serve.”
Simple Italian Cookery, Antonia Isola [Harper & Brothers:New York] 1912 (P. 10)
Cook noodles in boiling salted water for 20 minutes. Drain in colander and hold under cold water to separate, then hold under hot water to eat. Drain, place noodles on a large hot platter, sprinkle top with grated Parmesan cheese and add 3 lumps of butter about the size of a small egg. Now take a large spoon and fork and lift noodles from the platter until butter and cheese are thoroughly blended with noodles. This act of mixing the butter and cheese throughout the noodles becomes quite a ceremony when performed by Alfredo in his tiny restaurant in Rome, Italy. As busy as Alfredo is with his other duties he manages to be at each table when the waiter arrives with the platter of ‘fettuccine’ to be mixed by him.”
The Rector Cook Book, George Rector [Cribben & Sexton Company:Chicago IL] 1928 (p. 70)
Cook the noodles until tender in boiling water. Drain, place noodles on a large sizzling hot platter, sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese and add a generous lump of butter. With a large spoon and fork, lift the noodles from the platter, unti cheese and butter are thoroughly blended with them.
That dish was named for Alfredo, who has a restaurant in Rome. When Alfredo mixes the butter and cheese through the noodles, it’s a real ceremony. Alfredo always manages to be at each table when the waiter arrives with the platter of ‘fettuccine’ so that he can do the mixing himself. As he mixes the noodles he sways from the waist, keeping perfect time to the music of the orchestra. As he turns the noodles over and over, he puts lumps of butter under the stuff, and the hot platter melts this butter. First the butter comes to the top, then the Parmesan cheese, and pretty soon the whole mass is whirling around until it is a radiant, glorious mound of ‘fettuccine’. During the mixing, Alfredo actually leads the orchestra; they watch him closely, and harmonize with his movements. At the end of five minutes he stops back to look at his masterpiece through half-closed eyes. Theyn, with a sweeping gesture, he invites the diner to partake. ‘Fettuccine’ made Alfredo a cavaliere of Italy. I don’t know whether the king knighted him with the flat or a sword or the round of a spoon. But he has the decoration, nevertheless, and he is envied by all the rival chefs in Italy.”
“Our Daily Food,” Colonel Goodbody, Washington Post, April 16, 1932 (p. 8)
“It is only a mild exaggeration to say that if a restaurant in New York offers one dish of abiding excellence, the fact is worth recording. One such establishment that has this to recommend it is Alfredo of New York; at 240 West Fifty-sixth Street. The dish is fettuccine, a glorious creation made with melting ribbons of noodles, Parmesan cheese as rich as a hazelnut, butter and cream. To be properly made, fettuccine must be made quickly and with dexterity and preferably in a chafing dish at tableside. Great care must be exercised on the part of the waiter that the noodles do not break nor become overcooked. When Alfredo’s was visited on several occasions, the room was not filled to capacity and the fettucine-making ceremony was admirably observed…The cost of the fettucine in the evening is $2.50.”
“Restaurant on Review: Alfredo of N.Y.,” Craig Claiborne, New York Times, September 29, 1961 (p. 39)
Two things are important here: 1) to use Parmesan cheese you grated yourself,* and 2) to toss the noodles vigorously, with controlled abandon, so that each and every millimeter of every one is covered with the butter and cheese.
8 ounces broad egg noodles
1/2 pound butter
1/2 pound Parmesan
Cook the noodles till they’re tender–about ten minutes. Drain them well. Put them in a hot bowl, add butter cut in chunks (melted butter would give it a non-Alfredo flavor) and add the grated cheese. Then mix.
*This is what the purists say. I have not been able to discern much difference, myself, and I’ve tried. However, the kind you grate yourself you know is freshly grated, and you don’t know how long ago the grocer’s was.”
Peg Bracken’s Appendix to the I Hate to Cook Book, Peg Bracken [Harcourt Brace & World:New York] 1966 (p. 156-157)
“Fettuccine Alla Panna/Fettuccine With Cream Sauce
This embellished modern version of the old burro e parmigiano is sometimes known as fettuccine all’Alfredo The butter is melted with the cheese on a serving platter, and then turned into a smooth, creamy sauce without benefit of saucepan.
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cups all-purpose cream
8 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
6 quarts water
6 teaspoons salt
1 5-egg batch Pasta all’uovo (pages 15-22), cut into fettuccine (as in the preceding recipe) Put the bitter and cream in a wide, shallow serving bowl or deep platter in a warm (200 degrees F.) oven or, even better, on top of the pot containing the heating pasta water. When the butter has melted, stir in about 2/3 of the cheese. Keep this cream sauce warm while the fettuccine cooks. When the pasta comes to a good boil, salt it and put in the fettuccine by the handful. When al dente, drain it thoroughly, and put it on the platter with the cream-butter-cheese sauce. Turn it over and over until the sauce is well distributed. Serve immediately and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.”
The Romagnolis’ Table, Margaret and G. Franco Romagnoli [Atlantic Monthly Press:Boston MA] 1974, 1975 (p.29-30)
[NOTE: Recipe for Pasta, Burro E Parmigiano (Pasta with Butter and Parmesan cheese) precedes this passage (p. 28-29). The sauce contains unsalted butter & Parmesan cheese; no cream.]