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Water Cooler: The truth about fettuccine Alfredo

UPDATED: Wed., April 28, 2021

Fettuccine Alfredo is believed to be an American version of the Italian dish fettuccine al burro, or fettucine with butter.  (Pixabay)
Fettuccine Alfredo is believed to be an American version of the Italian dish fettuccine al burro, or fettucine with butter. (Pixabay)

If you happen to travel to Italy after the pandemic and in a joyous moment of celebrating unrestricted travel you order a plate of fettuccine Alfredo, it’s likely that nobody will know what you’re talking about. As delicious as fettuccine Alfredo is, it is far from what Italian roots it once had. Whether you are a stickler for authentic dishes, or you unabashedly love the rich taste of all things Americanized, here’s the history behind this simple pasta with tips on how to make it just to your liking.

In Italy, the closest thing you will find to fettuccine Alfredo is fettuccine al burro, or “fettuccine with butter.” This is likely the dish fettuccine Alfredo originated from. The story begins with an Italian restaurant owner, his name of course being Alfredo. One day, Alfredo Di Lelio had to think up a dish that his pregnant and subsequently nauseated wife could stomach. Some accounts say it was after the pregnancy when she fell ill. Either way, Mrs. Di Lelio was not holding much down.

Di Lelio offered his wife noodles tossed with butter and fresh Parmesan. She must have approved of this simple, but nutritious and tasty combination of ingredients because it was brought on as a regular menu item.

Some time later, culinary fate walked through the door of Di Lelio’s restaurant in the form of silent movie stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. They tasted the simple pasta sauce tossed with fettuccine noodles and were infatuated. Upon returning home, Pickford and Fairbanks spread word of their love for the dish and sent Di Lelio a gold cutlery set as a symbol of their gratitude. The restaurant would go on to be a celebrity favorite, solidifying the popularity of its signature dish which is dazzlingly served with a table-side ceremony of tossing the pasta in the sauce using the golden spoon and fork.

Over time in America, cream was added to the sauce, which is common with white pastas. For instance many Americans also add cream to dishes like carbonara, which traditionally only use the starchy pasta water and cheese to create the sauce.

Funnily enough, there are two surviving restaurants that both claim to be the birthplace of fettuccine Alfredo, Alfredo alla Scrofa and Il Vero Alfredo. They both have their own set of gold cutlery engraved with the names Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbank which they claim to be the original set.

Although that mystery may never be solved, you can investigate which version of fettuccine Alfredo you prefer. Both begin with boiling 14 ounces of fettuccine noodles in a pot of generously salted and boiling pasta water.

To make the traditional sauce, add the one-half cup softened unsalted butter to a large mixing bowl. Reserve at least a cup of the pasta water, then drain the pasta and immediately transfer the noodles to the mixing bowl, tossing with tongs. Once the butter has melted, add 2 cups of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Slowly add a bit of pasta water to emulsify the sauce, being careful to not make it too thin. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.

To make the Americanized version we all know and love, combine 1¼ cup of heavy whipping cream with one-half cup of unsalted butter and bring to a gentle simmer over medium heat while stirring continuously. Once thickened to your liking, turn off the heat and add two cups of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. You can add a few cloves of minced garlic or a cooked protein of your choosing. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Reserve a cup of pasta water and remove the noodles once cooked. Toss the sauce and noodles together, adding pasta water as needed to thin and emulsify the mixture.

Rachel Baker can be reached at (509) 459-5583 or rachelb@spokesman.com

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