Fettuccine Alfredo: It’s only Italian by birth in 1914 and we went to its birthplace in Rome
Fettuccine Alfredo is the deep-dish pizza of pasta. It’s about Italian as a 7-Eleven in Dubuque. It’s so American, I won’t distinguish it with italics as is proper literary style for all foreign words. It’s not really foreign. It’s on the menu of every Italian restaurant in the United States from Key West to Anchorage.
But I can’t find it hardly anywhere in Italy.
I’d never tried fettuccine Alfredo. I saw it on Italian menus as I traversed the U.S. for work and pleasure. I never bothered. Fettuccine with butter and parmesan? Really? That’s it? No thanks. I stuck with ravioli or pizza or spaghetti with meatballs or whatever other famous food lousy Italian restaurants serve in the U.S.
I know very few Italians who have tried fettuccine Alfredo. Those who have said they’d never try it again. Marina, a third-generation Roman, had never tried it. Her mother never made it. Fellow American expats said they only tried it in the States.
“Bring a vomit bag,” advised one.
I tried it Sunday. Here’s the verdict.
Fettuccine Alfredo history
But how did fettuccine Alfredo become so popular in the U.S. yet is a borderline joke in Italy? The legend of fettuccine Alfredo began in 1920 at a restaurant in Rome’s Centro Storico near the Tiber River. Alfredo Di Lelio opened Ristorante Alfredo in 1907, and in 1914 his wife felt ill after giving birth. He wanted to find something simple yet nutritious and filling for her.
He hand made some fettuccine, the long flat noodles, and combined it with butter and parmesan. It worked. She felt great. So did every other patron who came in and tried it. In 1920, that included Douglas Fairbanks, the swashbuckling American actor who starred in The Mark of Zorro and Robin Hood.
He brought his new bride, silent film star Mary Pickford, to Rome for their honeymoon and dined at Alfredo. They loved fettuccine Alfredo so much they returned to the U.S. and raved about it to all their Hollywood friends. Over the next 100-plus years, Hollywood glitterati have beaten a steady path to what is now called Alfredo alla Scrofa, named for the street where it sits.
The restaurant today
Marina, my fellow American expat John Robert Tuthill and I went Sunday. From the outside, Alfredo alla Scrofa looks every bit of its 116 years, which adds to its character and legitimacy. The facade is a dull-white sign in script on a building that could use a new coat of beige paint.
On the inside of the front door I saw a photo roll call of show business’ greatest superstars who’ve dined there. Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe. Gregory Peck and Rock Hudson. Frank Sinatra and Ringo Starr. Tony Curtis and Errol Flynn. There’s Jimi Hendrix, his hair everywhere, absolutely beaming over a pile of fettuccine Alfredo.
The walls inside the spacious restaurant are lined with framed photos, mostly of Italian celebrities. They update it constantly. I saw a photo of current prime minister Giorgia Meloni.
A line of about a dozen people had formed outside. The service was terrific and accommodating. I had originally reserved for two but when we invited John later, the maitre d’ ushered us from a table for two inside to a table for three outside. On a comfortable, 63-degree day under cloudy skies, we were all set to lose our Alfredo cherry.
The maitre d’ told me Alfredo alla Scrofa is about 60-40 tourists to locals which is a good endorsement for a restaurant many locals consider a tourist trap. We heard a lot of Italian around us.
I asked our waiter if he ever eats fettuccine Alfredo. All the time, he said, adding, “When you don’t want to cook, you make this dish.”
An expert weighs in
True. That’s the real role fettuccine Alfredo plays in Italy. It plays in the home. I called Rachel Roddy, a British food writer who has lived in Rome for 19 years and specializes in Roman cuisine. She wrote An A-Z of Pasta and says a version of this dish has always been made.
“It’s just an exaggeration of a very, very basic home Italian dish which is pasta, coated with butter and cheese which most kids eat all the time,” she said. “My son eats pasta with olive oil and cheese or pasta with butter and cheese. It’s children’s food, comfort food.
“(Scrofa) just took it to this crazy next level.”
She said even though it’s not on Italian menus, you can order it almost anywhere “off menu.” I do the same with my favorite pizza: gorgonzola and salsiccia (sausage). Rachel has tried Alfredo and makes it. She just doesn’t make a habit of it.
“It’s incredible,” she said. “I love butter with cheese. It’s an incredibly rich pasta dish. I like a mouthful. I wouldn’t want a whole plate of it.”
John and I did. Marina, fearing she’d have to triple her pilates and swim workouts, went sensible and ordered spigola (sea bass). The waiter brought out a huge oblong dish full of fresh, homemade fettuccine, covered in butter. He poured in a mess of parmesan and began furiously mixing it up with a knife and fork.
He put half in a plate for John and gave me the rest. I was skeptical. Glistening in a thick yellow glaze, it looked as heavy as a small Fiat. According to the Food Network, an average portion of fettuccine Alfredo has 1,200 calories and 75 grams of fat. It provides half your day’s worth of sodium. I felt like I was biting into an In-N-Out burger. For €23, it better be good.
I took a bite.
It was delicious.
It’s like cacio e pepe, the classic Roman dish made with fettuccine, pepper and Pecorino Romano cheese. But the butter gives Alfredo a different kind of bite. It’s tangy, a big flavor dish that doesn’t taste greasy.
“This puts Olive Garden to shame,” John said.
“You tried this at Olive Garden?” I said. “How was it?”
“White, lumpy and tasteless.”
Marina tried a bite. A small bite.
“It’s good,” she said. “But I could make it at home. It’s easy.”
That’s true but the key is homemade pasta and high quality parmesan. If you’re interested, here is Rachel’s recipe (she adds pepper to her recipe):
Prep 2 min
Cook 10 min
300g fresh fettuccine or tagliatelle, or 220g dried
4 tbsp grated parmesan
While the pasta is cooking in salted water, cube the butter, divide it between two warm bowls and mash it a bit. When the pasta is ready, drain, divide it between the bowls and toss. Divide the parmesan between the bowls, grind over some pepper and use two forks to toss.
While the pasta is cooking in salted water, melt the butter in a frying pan. When the pasta is ready, drain and tip it into the frying pan, tossing so that each ribbon is glistening. Divide between two bowls, top each with two tablespoons of grated parmesan and plenty of freshly cracked black pepper, toss again and eat.