This article is a slightly edited script from the video, instead of being a total rewrite because content creation is hard and I am just a fat boi working on this.
A lot of American Alfredo recipes are starting to take surface interest in food history, saying that the cream-based pasta’s original version is the creamless Pasta al Burro. The way to cook it is simple. You boil some pasta in salted water. Throw the cooked pasta into some butter and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Mix it around. And you get Pasta al burro e Parmigiano, which literally translates to pasta with butter and Parmigiano.
This dish is so simple to make that its other name in Naples is Pasta del Cornuto, which means cuckold’s pasta — named so because it’s so quick to prepare that an unfaithful wife can cook for her husband before he even reaches home.
Look at this dish. I want you to look deep into your soul and honestly ask yourself:
If you can buy the normal ingredients available to you in a typical supermarket, is this seriously all you’re going to eat for dinner?
Unless you’re one of those psychopaths who eat fried butter as a meal I’m assuming that you’d like to, at the very least, have some vegetables or meat. I’m not saying it doesn’t taste good, but for the Italians today, Pasta al burro is something you eat when you are sick or have nothing else in the fridge.
(On a side note, I don’t think eating butter or fat-heavy meals when sick is good according to medical evidence. I haven’t been able to find reliable studies to prove otherwise. On an anecdotal level, ethnic Asians tend to feel worse after eating a lot of butter.)
A look at the comments for the video showcasing Alfredo Alla Scrofa, the restaurant which claimed to have invented Fettuccine Alfredo, displays a dichotomy between English and Italian comments. On one side, English speakers are saying that Italian cuisine is amazing because it is simple.
And on the other, you have Italian comments laughing at the video for making such a big deal out of a simple dish. Or as one commenter called it, pasta when only the light is left in the fridge.
(The “master batch freezer” is a weird translation. The original word used is “mantecatore”, which is referring to the technique of mixing noodles with pasta water and an oily sauce to create a creamy emulsion. Assuming I’m interpreting this correctly, the comments are mocking the restaurant owner for making a big deal out of a simple technique.)
My point is, Pasta al burro is nothing special.
And… Pasta al burro is also not Alfredo.
Table of Contents
Pasta al burro from the 15th to 20th century
Contrary to any claims that Pasta al burro or Alfredo was invented around 1908, mixing noodles with butter and cheese has always been a thing since people had access to these ingredients. Much like how you’ll decide on a whim to eat fries with curry sauce instead of Ketchup for the first time, humans have always been mixing things available to them. Sometimes you get hits like Guacamole or Chilli Crab, while other times you get seafood Salad in lime-flavoured jello or Cheeseburger aspic.
It’s just what humans do. We try things and see what works and what doesn’t.
While humans are on average rather unintelligent, we still have to give our ancestors some credit and assume they were smart enough to mix butter and cheese with pasta.
And indeed, in the book, Pasta: The Story of a Universal Food written by historian Silvano Serventi and anthropologist Francoise Sabban, it is mentioned in the preface that
“Traded internationally in the Mediterranean basin from the twelfth century on — in the dry form — pasta also won a place in the finest kitchens. […] Cheese was a constant companion from the very beginning of pasta’s reign as a foodstuff, sometimes accompanied by a sprinkle of cinnamon.”
In the book, a recipe for a macaroni Venetian-style is also given by Giovanni del Turco, who lived around the turn of the 17th century. The pasta,
[turn of the 17th century]
made with pure wheat flour and milk mixed with a little lukewarm water. In a less sophisticated version, the milk is eliminated in favor of lukewarm water mixed with an egg. The macaroni are long strips or squares cut from sheets of dough “not too thin, but rather thick.” Plunged into water just till it returns to the boil, they are served seasoned with fresh butter and grated parmesan cheese and sprinkled with cinnamon.
– Pasta, the Story of a Universal Food by Silvano Serventi and Francoise Sabban, p. 237-238
These were back in the times when macaroni, derived from Maccheroni, meant either some kind of elongated pasta shape or any kind of pasta, rather than the tube shape English speakers nowadays know of. Another difference between then and currently in the 21st century is that pasta, cheese, butter and spices were expensive and only used by those who could afford them.
Martino da Como, an Italian chef considered to be unequalled in culinary skills during the 15th century, also had a recipe for Roman-style macaroni, in which he cooks pasta in fatty broth or water with fresh butter and salt, then placed on a platter with good cheese and butter and sweet spices.
Piglia de la farina che sia bella, et distemperala et fa’ la pasta un pocho più grossa che quella de le lasangne, et avoltola intorno ad un bastone. Et dapoi caccia fore il bastone, et tagliala la pasta larga un dito piccolo, et resterà in modo de bindelle, overo stringhe. Et mitteli accocere in brodo grasso, overo in acqua secundo il tempo. Et vole bollire quando gli metti accocere. Et se tu gli coci in acqua mettevi del butiro frescho, et pocho sale. Et como sonno cotti mittili in piattelli con bono caso, et butiro, et spetie dolci.
Roman-Style Maccaroni (Pasta with Cheese and Herbs)
Take some white flour, and add water and make a sheet of pasta slightly thicker than that for lasagne, and wrap it around a stick, and then remove the stick and cut the pasta into pieces the size of your little finger, and they end up with the shape of thin strips or strings. Cook in fatty broth or in water, depending on the season*. But they need to be boiled when you cook them. If you cook them in water, add some fresh butter and a bit of salt. When they are done, place on a platter with some good cheese and butter, and sweet spices.
– Martino, Libro de Arte Coquinara, ‘The Art of Cooking’, (c. 1465) Chapter 2, Recipe 25
Going through more recipes throughout history, a recipe from the 14th-century collection of medieval English recipes titled The Forme of Cury has the following recipe for a cheese and pasta casserole called Makerouns.
[late 14th century]
Take and make a thynne foyle of dowh. and kerve it on peces, and cast hem on boillyng water & seeþ it well. take chese and grate it and butt cast bynethen and above as losyns. and súe forth.
Make a thin sheet of dough and cut it in pieces. Place them in boiling water and boil them well. Take cheese and grate it and add it and place butter beneath and above as with losyns [a dish similar to lasagne], and serve.
Note that this was way back in the 14th century. The above recipe is arguably more similar to lasagne and mac and cheese, even if the flavour is probably more like Pasta Al Burro.
Moving on to The Experienced English Housekeeper, written by English businesswoman Elizabeth Raffald and published in 1769, we find that Americans weren’t even the first to add cream to pasta. (Which furthers my point of humans mixing things with things available to them because they can.)
To dress Macaroni with Parmesan Cheese
Boil four ounces of macaroni till it be 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 five minutes. Pour it on a plate, lay all over it parmesan cheese toasted. Send to to the table on a water plate, for it soon goes cold.
– The Experienced Engish Housekeeper, Elizabeth Raffald, 1769
Adding cream with butter and flour as this 1769 recipe instructs will form a bechamel sauce (although the modern accepted technique would cook the butter in the flour first before adding the cream or milk), which will certainly make it more similar to modern mac and cheese than Pasta Al burro or Alfredo.
We can surmise that the evolution of plain pasta certainly isn’t straightforward; mac and cheese, lasagna and Alfredo/pasta al burro have similar ancestor recipes.
Up till the early 1900s, recipes continue to call similar dishes of pasta with cheese and butter things like Macaroni with cream, or macaroni with butter and cheese. The following two recipes are more like Pasta al burro or Alfredo as we know it today.
Maccaroni, With Cream
Boil one pound of maccaroni, 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 mignionette-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 maccaroni, 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 1895? (p. 397) [Note: Chef Francatelli was in service to Queen Victoria.]
The above is from the cookery book The Modern Cook, published in 1846 and written by Charles Elme Francatelli, who was a British cook of Italian descent and chief cook to Queen Victoria. The basic idea here is a much richer – pun intended – version with Gruyere cheese and cream, which makes sense since he cooked for the Queen.
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, 1912 (p. 10)
This other simpler recipe is from a 1912 book Simple Italian Cookery, written by Mabel Earl McGinnis. Though she was born in New York, she used the pseudonym Antonia Isola to give it an air of authenticity. Perhaps a little deceitful, but she did live in Rome for some years to get familiar with Italian food. The book is considered the first Italian cookbook published in the US, and if you remember that Maccheroni or Macaroni was used as a generic term for pasta, then this is basically just Pasta al Burro.
Incidentally, the book also has the following Ribbon Macaroni recipe for making Fettuccine pasta.
Ribbon Macaroni (Pasta fatta in Casa. Fettucini)
2 ½ cups of flour
3 tablespoons of cold water
½ teaspoon of salt
Put the flour on a bread-board. Make a hole in the middle of it, and break the eggs into it. Add the water and the sale, and mix all together with a fork until the flour is all absorbed and you have a paste which you can roll out. Then take a rolling-pun and roll it out very thin, about the thickness of a ten-cent piece. Leave it spread out like this until it has dried a little. Then double it over a number of times, always lengthwise, and cut it across ins trips about one-half inch wide. Boil two quarts of salted water, and put the ribbons into it, and cook for ten minutes, then drain. Serve with the meat and sauce as in receipt for Macaroni with Meat and Sauce, or with the tomato sauce and cheese only, as desired.
What these recipes reveal is that around the turn of the 20th century, pasta with cheese and butter had evolved from rich people’s food to normal people’s food.
Around this time in Italy, Parmigiano cheese production also increased — partly due to some cheese politics too complicated to cover in the scope of this article, and partly due to advances in agrarian science and the establishment of professional training for cheese makers. I wasn’t able to verify if this made Parmigiano cheese cheap enough for peasants, but we can assume that to be the case for now. Another thing to consider is that Parmigiano Reggiano only became a protected designation of origin — meaning its production and sale are legally protected with certain criteria to be classified as authentic — in 1955. The implication is that many people before that, including Italians, could have made Pasta al burro with imitation Parmigiano or different cheeses intentionally or not. (one example can be found in Gina from the Italian-American YouTube channel Buon-A-Pettiti, who seems to prefer Pecorino over Parmigiano for her recipes, including Fettuccine Alfredo.)
Italian unification was also a major historical event at this time, having taken place officially in 1861. Unification deteriorated economic conditions, especially for the poor. Taxes introduced by the new government meant that the poor found it difficult even to eat, while the rich found ways to evade these taxes using their connections. Most poor Italians were said to have eaten potatoes, beans or bread, while things like pasta or meat were only eaten maybe twice a year. Seeking a better life, about 14 million Italians moved out of the country between the 1880s to 1914, among which 4 million found themselves in the United States.
But before we explore more on the Italian American story, let’s continue with our examination of historical recipes with the Talisman Italian Cook Book, written by Ada Boni in 1928. The cookbook is believed to be the first Italian cookbook targeted at housewives and is considered to be one of the defining recipe collections for modern Italian cuisine. The book sold nearly a quarter million copies, which was extraordinary considering that 20% of the 45 million Italians at the time were illiterate, and Italians tend to view cooking as an art and tradition to be passed down orally.
Notably, Pasta al burro isn’t even in the original collection of recipes.
I’m using the 1950 translation by Matilde Pei, and the recipe for Pasta al burro was only added because it was popular among the translator’s American friends.
Noodles With Butter and Parmesan Cheese (Roman Style)
4 cups flour
4 quarts water
2 tablespoons salt
1/2 cup butter (1/4 pound)
1 1/2 cups grated Parmesean cheese
Beat eggs lightly and add to flour on pastry board, mixing well. Work until dough is stiff and elastic, adding more flour if needed. Cut dough into 3 parts and roll out each part on floured board as thin as possible. Sprinkle dough sheets with a little flour, let dry a little, roll and cut into strips 3/4 inch wide. Cook about 8 minutes, or until tender but not soft. Cooking time will vary aa little depending on thickness of noodles. Drain will and place in large bowl. Add butter and cheese and mix until butter and cheese have been completely absorbed by noodles. Serve immediately with a little grated cheese. Serves 4 or 6.
– Talisman Italian Cook Book, Ada Boni, translated by Matilde Pei [Crown Publishers:New York] 1950, 1955 (p. 148-9)
Notice – even after 1908, it’s not called Alfredo.
Mario Pei, an Italian-born American linguist, wrote the introduction for the 1950 translation to dispel many myths Americans have about Italian food, which obviously didn’t work, but it gave some more important context.
For one, he used the word Macaroni to refer to any kind of pasta. Mario also mentions that many Italians, particularly those with weak stomachs, prefer sauceless macaroni, al burro e Parmigiano, with butter and Parmesan cheese. However, even in 1950, almost 90 years after unification, Italians still don’t share a homogenous cuisine. Macaroni, or pasta, isn’t even the preferred starch along northern and central Italy where the valley of the Po lay. Rice and corn were preferred here, as they grew better on the belt. It is only thanks to railroads, airplanes and automobiles that northern Italians are starting to acquire the taste for pasta.
The recipes above should give you an idea of the timeline. My inference is that simultaneous to the acceptance of Pasta al burro as a common Italian dish (as in being recognised by most Italians that it is a dish most Italians also ate), Fettucine Alfredo is also going through a separate evolution in the US to the version we know today with cream.
(For disclosure: I am Singaporean, and not American or Italian. I don’t think it makes any difference in analysing history, but it could make a difference in understanding modern contexts. In Singapore, Alfredo made with cream is a fairly common dish we can order in western hawker stalls or restaurants. However, the dish is misunderstood as an Italian dish rather than an Italian American dish.)
So where did the name Alfredo come from?
The name Alfredo comes from Alfredo Di Lelio, who worked in a restaurant in Piazza Rosa run by his mother. It is said that in 1908 his wife felt a bit under the weather after the birth of their son, and he cooked a Fettucine al triplo burro (Fettucine with triple butter) to whet his wife’s appetite.
His wife liked it so much that she suggested adding the dish to the menu. Alfredo later opened his own restaurant, Alfredo alla Scrofa, back then called only Alfredo, in 1914. His Fettucine proved to extremely popular among American tourists, finding itself referenced in a 1922 novel, Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis and gaining much media attention.
“I’d like awfully to run over to Rome for a few weeks.”
“I suppose you see a lot of pictures and music and curios and everything there.”
“No, what I really go for is: there’s a little trattoria on the Via della Scrofa where you get the best fettuccine in the world.”
“Oh, I— Yes. That must be nice to try that. Yes.”
At a quarter to ten McKelvey discovered with profound regret that his wife had a headache. He said blithely, as Babbitt helped him with his coat, “We must lunch together some time and talk over the old days.”
– Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis, 1922
The Trattoria’s popularity only grew as time went on, with Hollywood stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks dining at the restaurant during their honeymoon in Rome in 1927. Apparently, they liked the dish so much that they donated a set of spoon and fork made of pure gold with their names engraved. They even named Alfredo the King of Noodles.
This was the greatest explosion in the restaurant’s popularity, as the Hollywood stars continued to tell other Hollywood stars about the restaurant. In fact, the restaurant was so popular that Alfredo was even knighted.
Alfredo himself was known for his theatrics, mixing the pasta at the table and lifting it high in a ceremonious fashion, before presenting golden cutlery to the customer.
Many in Italy and overseas talked about the restaurant, speculating how he could have made the dish taste so good. Some have said that this triple butter could mean that he used two to three times the butter usually used, but some also speculate this meant that he used butter containing more fat. (Spoiler alert: it’s both.) Given the popularity of the dish, it’s no wonder that Italian restaurants in America wanted to sell the dish.
The secret recipe isn’t any secret. Or at least, no longer one. Mama Leone’s, an Italian American restaurant that opened in 1906 and later becoming one of the most popular restaurants in New York, published a cookbook in 1967. According to the cookbook, Alfredo — which, given the timeline likely to refer to the son or the grandson — is a good friend and gave Leone the recipe. The instructions are simply fresh pasta with lots of fresh creamery butter and parmesan cheese.
Fettucini alÁlfredo of Rome
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons cold water
¾ cup fresh creamery butter
6 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Place the flour on a pastry board, make a well in the center, and add eggs, salt, and 1 tablespoon of the water. Mix well with fingers and knead. Add
rest of water as needed. Knead until the dough forms a ball and comes away from your hands clean. Cover and let stand for 1 hour.
Cut dough into 4 pieces. Roll out paper thin, as thin as possible. Place on a towel to dry for 20 minutes. Now roll each sheet into a scroll about 2 ½ inches wide. Place on a board and cut into ¼ inch strips. Pick up with both hands and lightly shake loose, spreading the strips on wax paper. Sprinkle a little cornmeal over the fettucini. (you can buy the pasta ready-made in a package, but it won’t taste quite the same.)
Cook the fettucini in salted boiling water for 10 minutes. Check to see if it is cooked the way you like it. When ready, drain well and place back in the hot po.t Add about half of the butter; mix well. Add half of the cheese and mix again. Place in a warm bowl. Add the rest of the cheese and butter and mix well. Place the bowl in a hot oven for 2 minutes. Remove, and serve from bowl onto hot plates at table. Serves 4.
– Leone’s Italian Cookbook, Gene Leone, Foreword by Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1967, p. 75
Nobody is sure why cream was later added to American Alfredo recipes. The easiest explanation is that Americans simply liked cream.
My speculation for why cream was added to Pasta al burro
…my theory is a little more complicated, which is — given how difficult it is to procure good butter and Parmigiano cheese, cream was a solution Italian American chefs found to produce a substitute Pasta al burro.
In the first place, American butter doesn’t have as much milkfat as European butter. American-style butter is churned less and tends to have 80% milkfat, which is a requirement made into law in the US in 1923 in what is called the Butter Act.
For the purposes of the Food and Drug Act of June 30, 1906 (Thirty-fourth Statutes at Large, page 768) ‘‘butter’’ shall be understood to mean the food product usually known as butter, and which is made exclusively from milk or cream, or both, with or without common salt, and with or without additional coloring matter, and containing not less than 80 per centum by weight of milk fat, all tolerances having been allowed for.
(Mar. 4, 1923, ch. 268, 42 Stat. 1500.)
On the other hand, European butter has more variety of milkfat depending on the region of manufacture, usually averaging 82% which sounds like a minor difference, but matters a lot in practice, especially in butter-centric dishes.
Digging deeper into this speculation, the use of cream may also have been due to margarine, which was invented in 1869 by French chemist, Hippolyte Mège-Mouriez. By the invention, I don’t mean mixing several ingredients together, but I mean a process that actually involved scientific experimentation. Napoleon the Third had offered a prize for a butter substitute due to the low supply and rising cost of butter. Political tensions with Prussia were also rising, and a cheap substitute was necessary nutrition for the army and the French working population.
While margarine didn’t really catch on in Italy, the invention of the margarine-creating process would create a long political and legal battle between butter and margarine in certain countries like the UK and the US. Health and protecting the interests of the dairy industry were concerns, but the most relevant part to our discussion for Alfredo is that fraud cases where margarine is sold as butter is common.
Detectives even had to be hired for these cases of “bogus butter”, which the New York Times estimated a total of 60 million pounds (as in the weight unit) of butter to be in circulation in 1885.
In any case, the further details into the political drama around butter and margarine worth 101 pages aren’t relevant to my speculation.
As mentioned earlier, Parmigiano cheese also had its own politics leading to the protected designation of origin in 1955. Given these difficulties, it’s not surprising to see people turn to alternatives to find a better taste.
There’s certainly reason to disagree with my theory, but let’s also consider the context of how Italian-American cooking came to be.
The beginnings of Italian-American cooking
Many Italians that came after the 1880s don’t come from the same region; they tended to be poor and came from Southern Italy, such as the states of Abruzzo, Molise, Campania, Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria and Sicily, which faced a greater tax burden from the regime.
Back in Italy, a diet of potatoes, beans, and bread every day was the norm, while pasta and meat were only eaten twice a year. Even so, government surveys in the 1870s estimated about 75 to 85% of the average poor Italian family’s income was spent on food, leaving not much else for other things. Even in the 1940s, at least half of Italians ate meat only on Sundays.
But in America, these Italian labourers who were once too poor for wine, could, on a slim salary earned in a tile factory, buy imported rice, antipasto, wine, and meat. In America, they still spent a lot of their wages on food, but they were now eating whatever they want. Instead of eating meat twice a year, they were eating meat twice a week. They bought American olive oil, cheese, meat and foodstuffs and called their food Italian. Sometimes, they could even buy imported ingredients from Italy.
This isn’t to say that life in America wasn’t hard. Most actually faced real poverty, lived in cramped quarters, had to send their children to work, and faced various illnesses. But to these Italians, there was simply no comparison between Italy and the United States. Here, they don’t need to starve and had social mobility and could even start their own businesses. As if to spite the rich in Italy, they made sure to eat well no matter how poor they were. Americans even criticised them for wasting their money on expensive imported olive oil despite living in poverty, but it didn’t matter to them.
“Why, during the depression when Welfare workers came down among our Italian people, they would give them a certain amount of money to spend each week and some education on what they called ‘nutrition’ so they could get the most food for their money. These Welfare workers would get upset because our Italian families insisted on buying very good olive oil to cook with. Anybody ought to know that Italians have to have olive oil to cook with and it’s something which is much more important than budgets or stuff like that.”
– Saul D. Alinsky, Reveille for Radicals (New York: Random House, 1946), p. 104.
Food that used to be revered and out of their dreams became part of their everyday life, and these helped form their new identities and connect the Italian immigrants from different backgrounds. Much like how they saw the rich do in Italy, they socialised using food, used it to welcome neighbours, have community parties surrounded by food, and given the lack of land, grew small community gardens on rooftops. You could even say that food was sacred given the religious context. Italian Catholics had the tradition of enormous, multi-generational extended family and community meals, especially on Sundays, meaning people cooked together and could pass on what they knew.
Italian Americans lived with each other, saw, smelled, and tasted each other’s local and regional foods, and took on their own Italian identity. Since immigrants tended to work and ate lunch near the workplace, this also gave way for food wagons targeted at Italians.
With food as a bonding site for Italian communities with different backgrounds, it’s no surprise that local traditions became mixed. The realities of American ingredients, abundant as they may be, also meant that Italian Americans had to cook differently. Plum tomatoes, which were used in Italy, were suitable for making quick pasta sauces since the skin was thin and there weren’t many seeds. But the tomatoes in the US at the time were not plum tomatoes and had many seeds and thicker skin.
Immigrants had to deviate from traditional recipes in order to find a familiar taste; it’s just adaptation in practice.
By the 19th century, immigrants mostly from Northern Italy had already opened restaurants, and these restaurants tended to follow trends, which was French cuisine at the time. This meant a somewhat Northern Italian spin, so your Bolognese, Lasagne, Parmigiana and Tiramisu. With the Southern Italians coming in, these restaurants gained a new clientele, and also new workers as waiters or line cooks.
Subsequently, using the knowledge and background of Italian American food, the naturalised Italian Americans opened their own restaurants.
A Northern Italian who emigrated from Italy to the U.S. in the 1920s and later became a restaurant owner had remarked that Italian American food was “just for fun called Italian.”, but he also found dishes like spaghetti with meatballs and chicken parmigiana highly satisfying, and thinks someone in Italy should invent them for the Italians. (If you didn’t know spaghetti with meatballs and chicken parmigiana are Italian-American, well now you know.)
“One evening,” while strolling around New York, “we went to an Italian restaurant where I was introduced to two very fine, traditional American specialties called ‘spaghetti with meatballs,’ and ‘cotoletta parmigiana.’” Since such dishes were usually served in Italian restaurants, he wryly remarked that they must be “just for fun called Italian. As a matter of fact, I found both extremely satisfying and I think someone in Italy should invent them for the Italians over there.” He observed the world of Italian American food “in wide- eyed fascination . . . Italian antipasto, minestrone, beefsteak Milanese . . . with broccoli Siciliano.”
– Niccolà de Quattrociocchi, Love and Dishes (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1950), pp. 30, 49.
(The passage is gotten from Hasia R. Diner, Hungering for America, since I don’t have access to the actual source)
Examples of this change could actually be seen in the earlier mentioned Leone’s cookbook, which has tried to keep the recipes as was used in the restaurant scaled down for the home cook. As a reminder, the restaurant opened in 1906. For our purposes, this serves as a good reference for Italian American cuisine in the first half of the 20th century.
In the cookbook, one of the first things we learn about cooking pasta is that while Italians liked pasta to be al dente, Americans liked it softer.
In the recipe for Bolognese sauce, we can also find certain things Italians in the 21st century consider forbidden. Like garlic, butter, rosemary, the lack of carrots and celery, no milk to finish the sauce, and saying to serve over spaghetti.
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup fresh creamery butter
2 ounces salt pork, diced
1/4 pound onions, peeled and diced
1/2 pound Italian sweet sausage
1/2 pound lean beef, ground
4 chicken livers, chopped fine
2 garlic cloves, mashed
1/2 teaspoon fresh rosemary
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
6 tablespoons dry white wine
1 cup canned peeled plum tomatoes, sieved
2 medium-sized ripe tmatoes, chopped fine
Tiny pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup boiling water
Combine olive oil, butter and salt pork in a saucepan; heat. Add onions and brown slowly. Remove sausage casing and cut the meat into 1/2-inch pieces. Add to the onions with the beef and chicken livers. Brown slowly for 15 minutes. Chop garlic with the rosemary and add to the sauce with the bay leaf and pepper. Stir well and cook for 10 minutes. Add wine, stir, cover, and cook for 10 minutes. Remove sausage, chicken livers, and all chunks and chop fine; place back in the sauce. Add sieved and chopped tomatoes and the nutmeg. Remove and discard bay leaf. Add boiling water and cook, uncovered, for 40 minutes, slowly. This sauce is especially delicious over fettuccini or spaghetti. Makes about 4 cups.
– Leone’s Cookbok, Gene Leone, 1967, p. 96-97
You also have a recipe for pork chops with spaghetti, which Italians nowadays consider a no-no, since pasta and meat dishes should be separated.
My point is that Italian Americans had experienced a lot of changes after immigration; from little meat to a lot of meat, from a place with people from the same region to a place with people from many regions, and a change in the kind of ingredients they use in cooking.
Context behind Italian American cuisine gives us the evidence to deduce that Fettuccine Alfredo had similarly evolved; from a dish served specifically to American tourists, to an Italian American classic with cream, or even chicken.
Fettuccine Alfredo in Italy today
Today in Italy, Fettucine Alfredo continues to be sold primarily to tourists. The restaurant Alfredo alla Scrofa is technically still there but has been sold by the Di Lelio family to two of his waiters in 1943. The Di Lelio family regrets the sale, and opened another restaurant called Il Vero Alfredo in 1948, meaning the REAL Alfredo, and both restaurants had been fiercely competing since.
The history of Fettucine Alfredo in Italy is otherwise uninteresting, reading more like the marketing or corporate history of a restaurant franchise rather than a shared history among all Italians. This isn’t to take anything away from the culinary skills of the Di Lelio family or how much they contributed to Italy’s economy in a time of economic hardship. (Both restaurants’ menus look delicious, and while a tad expensive, seems to be a reasonable expenditure assuming you know that you are going into a tourist trap.)
I’m just not personally interested in reading or talking about franchise drama.
(EDIT: Ines Di Lelio, granddaughter of Alfredo Di Lelio has apparently replied below with some important events in the restaurant’s history. Given that this exact same reply seems to be posted across multiple blog posts mentioning Alfredo, I’m guessing this is an automated reply.)
But to summarise our findings,
you can say Pasta al burro has evolved into three versions today.
The first is as Italians know: Pasta with butter and Parmigiano cheese, originally eaten by rich people centuries ago, usually with spices, and now becoming common people food eaten when sick or when the fridge is empty.
The second is a marketing stunt using the previous recipe, named after the restaurant owner, then became popular among Americans and later transforming into a tourist trap.
And the third is the Italian American dish, which started because of a marketing stunt, but has evolved into its own version through circumstances unique to America.
This is only my opinion, but having read through the history of the dish, I think it is reasonable to say that Fettucine Alfredo is an Italian American dish and is different from the Italian Pasta al burro e Parmigiano. It’s certainly reasonable to say that the Alfredo pasta with cream isn’t Italian, but you can’t say it is not Italian American.
Alfredo Di Lelio popularised and catalysed a little part of Italian American history, and his food had to be good to achieve this. It’s fine to be proud for him, fellow Italian or not.
But as I see it, calling it the original recipe — given the historical evidence of pastas with butter and cheese — would be incorrect. And calling it the only and correct way to make “Alfredo” would be denying Italian American history. Italian American ancestors worked for their descendant’s freedom to eat meat and cream. There’s no reason to deny that.
Given the margarine scandals and the difficulty to buy real Parmigiano, Italians could be proud that their country produces good cheese and butter!
And for the people wanting to make Alfredo or Pasta al burro: don’t be afraid! Make the Italian American dish Fettucine Alfredo. Here’s Chef Jean Pierre, a French-Italian chef making Alfredo with cream. And here’s Gina Petiti, an Italian grandmother adding cream and using Pecorino in her Alfredo.
If you’re making Pasta al Burro, try to use European or Italian butter with higher milkfat, and good quality Parmigiano Reggiano. And if possible, hand-made pasta because it is made with semolina flour and eggs, rather than semolina flour and water which dry pasta is made of.
But ultimately, I’m not the one who decides what a dish should be called.
I’m just a fat boi who reads. Not a historian, sociologist or Italian or a chef. You decide what to do with the information.
Eating some Pasta al burro
I thought I might as well make some pasta al burro for video footage. From left to right, this plate has:
- Pasta al burro e parmigiano, which doesn’t look saucy here for some reason but there is a thin layer of butter and parmesan.
- the same thing with cinnamon, I don’t think many people will like this.
- I used three times the butter for the Italian Alfredo version, and to my surprise, it doesn’t taste very greasy or oily. The key is to mix it so it becomes a sauce.
- Using cream and a little bit of flour and butter. It didn’t work out quite well cause I followed the 1769 book’s instruction instead of doing the now classic bechamel technique. Unless you’re making mac and cheese, there’s not much merit to the flour here.
In any case, having tasted “Italian Alfredo” (i.e. with triple butter) and Italian American Alfredo (with cream), my verdict is that they actually taste different simply for the fact that butter and cream taste different.
So, make the dish however you prefer.
This list only contains sources not already directly linked or mentioned in previous paragraphs.
- Hasia R. Diner – Hungering for America for understanding immigrant context in America around the 20th century.
Lucy H. Gillett, “Factors Inºuencing Nutrition Work among Italians,” Journal of Home Economics 14, 1 (Jan. 1922) for understanding Italian immigrant living conditions.
- Silvano Serventi, Françoise Sabban – Pasta – The Story of a Universal Food for the history of pasta.