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Italian or American? The Truth About Fettuccine Alfredo

Admiration Comes From the Most Unthinkable Ingredients

“Italians have been eating Fettuccine Alfredo for over a century… They just didn’t know that’s what it was called!”

If Italians put just one tenth of the passion they spend discussing food into debating politics, we’d be a nation of fine statesmen. The country might be on the brink of yet another recession, but what really matters to us is establishing the right cut of pork-meat for our carbonara.

Even if the world has an overall positive opinion of us (we dress well, they say, we’re friendly and well-natured…), sooner or later every foreigner gets to experience some degree of “Italian judgment”. This is typically expressed over what we believe to be unforgivable food-crimes, exemplified by the contempt-smile of the unfortunate waiter serving you a cappuccino at lunchtime

Inevitably, people making Italian food outside our national borders are also generally looked at with suspicion. The United States, with its blend of Italian immigrant culture and unscrupulous marketing, has given us some formidable inventions in this category. The list of Italian dishes that aren’t so Italian includes: chicken parmigiana, garlic bread, “Italian dressing” (whatever that might be), the evergreen Caesar salad and, of course, Fettuccine Alfredo. 

The latter, a must-have on every Italian restaurant menu in the U.S., puzzles many among the Italic peoples. Reasons are multiple: the pasta itself, which is usually overcooked; the sauce, an inventive combination of cream and pretty much anything from broccoli, mushroom and peas to shrimp and chicken; and the fact that most Italians have never even heard of it!   

Italo-American comedian Matteo Lane joked about the dish on Instagram: “You have to meet some American Italians,” started Lane. “They eat something called Fettuccine Alfredo. Have you ever heard of it? They don’t have it in Italy. It doesn’t exist. One time I was in Italy and they had Fettuccine Alfredo on the menu, and I asked ‘Why do you have it on the menu?’ And the waiter goes, ‘So many Americans ask for this meal!’”  

In less than 48 hours, Lane had to retract the post. His account got flooded by messages informing him of the true origins of the dish. Fettuccine Alfredo, it turns out, is 100% Italian. 

To be fair, the original recipe is quite different from whatever you may find in the States. 

Italians have been eating Fettuccine Alfredo for over a century… They just didn’t know that’s what it was called!

Every story that has turned into legend has different versions and variations. But in this case, all threads begin in the heart of Rome at the same place: the restaurant Alfredo on Via della Scrofa. There, in 1907, chef Alfredo di Lelio opened a restaurant not far from the taverns in which Caravaggio dined and bantered in over 400 years ago.

After her second pregnancy, Alfredo’s wife was very weak and eventually fell ill. Concerned about her wellbeing, the chef decided to prepare a restorative dish: something nourishing and appealing to the palate, but not too heavy on the stomach. He came out with a dish of fresh-egg fettuccine with butter and parmesan.

The recipe works. The lightness of the dough is perfectly balanced by the creamy sauce of melted butter and cheese: very simple and effective. Alfredo’s wife is back on her feet again. 

The dish proves successful in flavor among Alfredo’s friends too and eventually enters the restaurant’s menu as “Fettuccine all’Alfredo”. 

In 1920, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, the brightest stars of the American silent film era, are visiting Rome for their honeymoon. Fate brings the couple to Alfredo’s restaurant, where they fall in love with his fettuccine. Back in Hollywood, they begin to spread the word about the restaurant among their friends and guests, including notable personalities like George Bernard Shaw, Albert Einstein, Francis Scott Fitzgerald and Amelia Earhart.

Seven years later, the couple is back in Rome and gives Alfredo a golden spoon and fork, engraved with the names of the two actors and inscribed: “To Alfredo the King of Noodles”. It’s probably at that moment, in the symbolic shift from the Italian “fettuccine” to the American “noodles”, that the recipe gets fully appropriated. Brought to the USA and branded “Fettuccine Alfredo”, it will go through countless interpretations and commercial success. 

From that moment onwards, the fame of the dish grows and grows. Actor Ettore Petrolini, poet Trilussa, writers Luigi Pirandello and Thomas Mann, and even the inventor Guglielmo Marconi are fans of the dish. 

In the meantime, silent movies have become talkies. In the 1950s, Hollywood moves “on the Tiber” and the age of the Dolce Vita is in full swing. Alfredo’s guest books turn into a who’s who of the international jet-set. Everybody who passes by Rome stops by: Marylin Monroe, Gregory Peck, Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, Wilson Pickett. An enthusiastic Federico Fellini leaves a comment: “Who eats at Alfredo lives a hundred years!”

Several decades and a change of ownership later, the restaurant, Alfredo alla Scrofa, is still at the same address and is more active than ever. At the entrance, a plaque proudly reminds clients they’re entering “The Birthplace of the Original Fettuccine Alfredo”. (Although the pasta remains not so common in Italy and is often only found on menus of touristy restaurants, the original dish can also be tried at Il Vero Alfredo, the spot opened by Alfredo di Lelio and his son after the sale of their first location.)

When I visit myself, Mario Mozzetti, one of the current owners, mistakes me for a municipal policeman. The city of Rome has just recognized the restaurant as a “Roman Excellence in the World”, and that morning he had been waiting for an officer to sign some papers and make the news official. Mozzetti jokes about my mistaken identity and starts showing me around. 

The place is the archetype of a historical Roman restaurant. Parquet flooring and wood paneling give it a welcoming feeling, and the crisp-white tablecloths reflect the light pouring in from the windows. Pickford and Fairbanks’ golden cutlery is still kept at the restaurant–relics ready to be shown to the most faithful guests.

Signed black and white photographs of Hollywood stars tile every wall. I’m impatient to see who I can recognise. I find Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas, Sophia Loren and Tony Curtis; a photo of Brigitte Bardot, elegant and haughty in a checkered tailleur, leaving the restaurant among general amazement; Ingrid Bergman smiling at the camera, looking quite relaxed. 

On Alfredo’s walls, Hollywood stars mingle with lesser Italian gods: neomelodic singers, TV hosts and politicians. In fact, a lot of politicians. Left or right, the Italian parliament clearly knows where to eat well. And so I’m brought back to my dream of Italians more involved in politics than in food. A mere illusion, quite clearly. There’s even a photo of Giorgia Meloni, taken back in the day, when nobody could think she’d become prime minister one day.

After a stop in an intimate room that collects the emblems of the Italian royals that enjoyed Alfredo’s dishes–after all, the enterprise existed under the monarchy for forty years–Mozzetti takes me to the sancta sanctorum. At the back of the restaurant, bigger portraits than the ones I’ve seen so far are hung in hieratic symmetry. Here’s Tyrone Power, there Joan Croford, Jimi Hendrix and Audrey Hepburn keep company to Ringo Starr and Gregory Peck. Walt Disney closes the series. 

Probably inspired by the weight of history that surrounds us and by recent news, Mozzetti notes semi-jokingly: “We have survived two World Wars… and we are ready to endure a third one if it comes.” 

Fettuccine Alfredo is still presented the original way with “a very simple recipe and a little theatricality”, as Mozzetti explains. I see what he means: before serving it, waiters mix the pasta with parmesan cheese right in front of you with ample and elegant movements. 

A group of loud tourists entering the restaurant brings us back to reality. Alfredo is open for the day, and I must leave Mozzetti to his job.  

On my way home, my mind wanders. The story of Fettuccine all’Alfredo is about hospitality, passion for good food and, above all, conjugal/familial love: all values the entire world associates with Italy. It makes sense that the dish has become a synonym of Italianness in the USA. The fact the States came up with so many versions of it, and that they insist on branding all of them as Italian food, betrays a genuine fondness for our culture. 

Let’s suspend, for once, our Italian judgment. Admiration comes from the most unthinkable ingredients. 

Alfredo della Scrofa, Restaurant