It is amazing to me, a guy who grew up in an Italian-American community in upstate New York, how much I learned about being Italian when I left that community to live among the medighans of Los Angeles. I didn’t realize that real Italians went around saying for-ged-aboud-it and we didn’t call it sauce, but gravy, a debate to be addressed in another post. I also didn’t realize that there was a dish called fettuccini Alfredo. The night I learned that, however, stands out very clearly in my mind.
I was at a soiree (not just a party, but a soiree) where I was introduced to the proverbial California blonde. Now, you have to remember that I was just a kid from upstate New York where the closest I had ever been to a girl like that was watching television. Upon hearing my last name she started to tell me how much she loved Italian food. Her blue eyes sparkled as she went through her list of favorite Italian dishes, but things took a turn when she got to Fettuccini Alfredo. An overt sensual tone took over her voice. She closed those very pretty blue eyes and, with a carnal yet subtle lick of her lips, she talked of how she would order Fettuccini Alfredo at her favorite Italian restaurant, devouring it in what can be accurately described as a near orgasmic frenzy.
“Do you know how to make Fettuccine Alfredo?” she asked looking into my eyes, the tips of her fingers resting ever so lightly on my forearm. “I have never had homemade Fettuccine Alfredo by a reeeal eye-talian.”
“YES! Yes, I make it all the time.” I lied. The electricity of her fingers tips shot through my suite, up my arm, into my brain muddling any capacity to think rationally. “My mother taught me how. It is a very old family recipe, not like the stuff you get in restaurants.” In the back of my mind, the part that was still barely rational, I was thinking what the hell is fettuccine Alfredo. “I tell you what, I will teach you how to make it just like my mother. Just come by my place on Friday.”
“Really? No, I couldn’t put you to all that trouble.”
“No, no really. It would be my pleasure.”
The next morning, I was on the phone with my mother. “Ma, how do you make fettuccini Alfredo?”
“What? Who the hell is Alfredo?” she shouted back into the phone.
My heart sank.
Fettuccini Alfredo, as served in the states, is an American bastardization of an Italian dish, pasta bianca. When I was a boy, we called pasta bianca some pasta and butter with a little sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. It was my childhood comfort food.
The origins of what medighans call fettuccini Alfredo dates back to the early 1900s. As the story goes, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, while on their honeymoon in Rome, visited the restaurant of Alfredo di Lelio. At the time he served a fettuccini version of pasta bianca, but named it after himself. Upon their return to the states, the Hollywood couple made the dish for their friends, and its popularity spread. Of course, in the states when it comes to food there is no sense of balance. Why settle for a little butter when you can drown it in heavy cream and slop on ladles of cheese, turning it into a mess of indigestible glop? I have also seen where people have added shrimp, or green peas, or chunks of chicken. What started as a simple easy dish, has turned into a concoction that bears little resemblance to the original served by Alfredo di Lelio.
When I have had this discussion in the past, some have argued that they have been to Italy where they have seen it on the menu. Some have even ordered it. This really doesn’t prove anything; Italians know how to profit from tourists’ preconceived notions of what it means to be Italian. Not all food served in Italy is traditional Italian fare. Remember, there is a McDonald’s one block from St. Mark’s square.
Fettuccini Alfredo may not a traditional Italian dish, but it doesn’t have to be. If you like fettuccini Alfredo, go for it. Have a good time. I know this may sound hard to believe, but it is ok to eat food that isn’t authentic Italian. Just know, when you eat it that you are eating something that has evolved in the United States which is fine if that is what you enjoy. As for me…
No doubt that you can tell, this is not high on my list of dinner choices. To be candid, the few times I have ordered it in a restaurant I regretted it. As far as making it at home… Well, I did that only once when I was a young man newly arrived in Los Angeles.