Growing up, my brother was a fervent proponent of fettuccine Alfredo. No matter the restaurant we visited, he’d order it off the menu. There was no food — aside from maybe our dad’s renowned tuna — that satisfied him as much, and he could eat it at a greasy spoon, a hole in the wall or fancy-schmancy restaurant. His love affair with fettuccine Alfredo was soon eclipsed by another Italian American stalwart (that of penne alla vodka, of course), but for a time there, fettuccine Alfredo and my brother were synonymous.
While I forever and always adore tomatoes and would typically order a requisite, tomato-laced Italian dish, I could certainly understand what my brother enjoyed so much about the dish. Often monochrome, except for the little bit of chopped parsley on top, fettuccine Alfredo is soft-on-soft and rather heavy. Let’s be frank: No one planning on “eating clean” would ever conceive of ordering fettuccine Alfredo. But whatever, their loss!
At its core, fettuccine Alfredo stems from an Italian dish that espoused the ethos of the Italian food culture of the time: celebrating simplicity, purity and fresh ingredients. Originally made with nothing but unsalted butter, Parmigiano-Reggiano and fettuccine, fettuccine Alfredo boomed in popularity back in the ’70s or ’80s.
Soon, the “Alfredo sauce” was sold as a jarred monstrosity of fillers, preservatives, thickeners, additives and who knows what else. I’d venture to say, though, that 2022 is the perfect time to bring back the original flair of fettuccine all’Alfredo, harnessing the best of Italian ingredients and using a toothsome, substantial noodle to tie it all together.
As the story goes, Alfredo Di Lelio, who ran the eponymous restaurant Alfredo on the famed gourmet street of Via Della Scrofa in Rome in the early 1900s, was looking to cook something tepid and warming for his pregnant wife, who was experiencing profound nausea.
He served her pasta in bianco — plain or white pasta — in efforts to quell her upset stomach. She became especially fond of this, and soon enough, he added the dish to the restaurant’s menu. The rest is history. In Italy, the dish is bare bones, essentially buttered pasta.
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In the U.S., however, its popularity exploded, with various restaurants, chefs and companies creating heavier and heavier iterations of the once-simple sauce.
John Marini writes in Forbes that the original Alfredo was an exercise in luxury: “[T]he fettuccine was made with an enormous quantity of eggs and three kinds of flour; the butter was a triple cream — the richest available — and he Parmesan-Reggiano was cut from the core of the wheel.”
In the parlance of John Hammond from “Jurassic Park,” Alfredo “spared no expense” in ensuring that his pasta would help mitigate his wife’s ailments, hoping that the indulgent, decadent dish would assuage her ills. And did it ever.
A note on fettuccine
Also, it must be said that fettuccine is a stellar option of its own volition. If you’re opposed to the rich, laden sentiment associated with Alfredo and negatively let it impact your opinion of fettuccine, stop that right away.
It’s a wonderful, toothsome noodle with more body and “oomph” than spaghetti that is less laborious to eat than the likes of tagliatelle or pappardelle. It’s also a perfect choice for a rich, creamy sauce, whereas a capellini would fit better with a lighter sauce. Pappardelle is amazing for a heavy, fatty Bolognese.
I’d never presume to tell you what you must or mustn’t buy or order. “It’s your kitchen” is my forever ethos, and similarly, it’s your money, too!
I do want to note, though, that some Italian cheeses may clump up when you add them to the butter and cream. This is immensely frustrating and can totally throw off your entire experience. If you’re able, opt for the best of the best and splurge on some Parmigiano-Reggiano. It blends and emulsifies perfectly — and its flavor is insurmountable. Of course, other cheeses are usable, but they may clump up, or the result may not be as silky or smooth as you’re used to with jarred or restaurant Alfredo.
A note on cooking
Similarly enough, also be sure not to keep the heat too high, or the same issue with the cheese clumping (or even scorching and breaking or separating from the sauce itself) may arise. It can be a bit finicky, but just be patient, and your sauce should come together beautifully.
Classic Fettuccine Alfredo
- 16 ounces fettuccine (or fresh pasta)
- 1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)
- 1 stick unsalted butter (ideally with a high fat content)
- 8-ounce block Parmigiano-Reggiano, freshly grated, divided
- Italian parsley, freshly chopped
- Kosher salt, to taste
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it generously. Add pasta and cook according to box directions, draining at about 1 minute less than box directions. (You want the pasta just a tad under al dente because it will finish cooking in the pan with the sauce. This helps facilitate an “enrobing,” which helps tie the sauce and pasta together as one.) If using homemade or fresh pasta, cook only about 3 to 4 minutes, instead. Just before draining, reserve about 1 cup of hot, starchy cooking water.
Add a handful of grated Parmesan, a touch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Whisk well and let cook for 1 or 2 minutes.
Add warm, drained pasta directly to the pan and toss well with tongs. Add starchy cooking water in increments if the pasta seems dry.
Add more cheese, give it another toss, add parsley and serve immediately.
Some additives and alternatives:
- Serve with a big, bright, verdant salad with a generous drizzle of balsamic to help offset the laden, rich flavors.
- Cut the richness by drizzling with an herb purée or pesto; topping with some roasted cherry tomatoes or fennel; or pairing with a lean, grilled protein of sorts like shrimp or chicken.
- Conversely, double down on the laden, heavy stature of the dish by including meatballs (unsauced) or super crispy chicken cutlets.
- Lighten with herbs or leafy greens, including sage, tarragon, sorrel, kale, spinach or Swiss chard.
- Diversify the flavor by adding some spiced or blackened chicken, or even incorporating some spice (paprika, sumac, chili powder) into the Alfredo itself. You can also take it in a Cajun direction.
- Some swear by fresh or frozen green peas or broccoli in their Alfredo, but I’ve never been a huge fan of their inclusion.
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