I’ve heard it time and time again. “I can’t wait to have Fettuccine Alfredo in Italy”. Ummm, sorry friend… you won’t find it. It isn’t Italian. Well, that isn’t entirely true, actually. You can get it in Italy, but you will never find anything like it it on a menu, and certainly not by that name. To get you in the right frame of mind, imagine I served you a simple slice of toast with a pat of butter on it, and I told you this was a special dish I call ‘Bread alla Michael’, you would laugh, right? Fettuccine Alfredo falls into that realm for an Italian.
When you were growing up, if you had a little stomach ache, maybe your mother gave you some chicken broth. Perhaps some simple rice, or a little toast? If your stomach was unsettled, she gave you something light, right? In the pasta culture of Italy, one of the most common things ‘mamma’ would have given you is a very simple pasta, called ‘pasta in bianco’. That translates to ‘white pasta’… or more indirectly, ‘without any sauce’. Of course, mamma would never have just given you pasta without flavor, so she put a little butter and Parmesan cheese on it to get you to eat it.
It is the most basic of pastas. You will never find it on a menu in Italy, because who in their right mind would go out and pay to have Pasta In Bianco? It is so simple, so basic, that if you really wanted it any restaurant could give it to you, so to advertise it on a menu would be like Ford advertising that their cars have steering wheels. Duh!
To go to a restaurant with the purpose of ordering this dish would be like going to a Chinese restaurant with the purpose of ordering plain, steamed, white rice. It simply is what it is. And if you DO ask for it in a restaurant in Italy, the waiter may show concern for you, thinking you may not be feeling well.
The Pregnant Wife
So why am I rambling on about stomach aches, anyway? This is how ‘Alfredo Sauce’ was born. As the story goes, there was a restaurant owner of a touristy restaurant in Rome back in the 1920’s. His name was Alfredo, and at the time he had a pregnant wife. She was regularly having pasta in bianco, because she couldn’t keep anything else down. The story they tell you now is that one day Alfredo rushed into the kitchen to make a special dish that she simply could not resist, and he suddenly invented Fettuccine Alfredo… well, it makes for a good tourist tale, but it is just Pasta in Bianco. It is what any Italian would make on any given day for any pregnant woman suffering from nausea.
One day, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were at his restaurant and had this dish that the wife had been eating. That day the pasta happened to be Fettuccine, and of course she was having it ‘In Bianco’. They loved it,, and gave Alfredo a picture of them to hang on his wall along with a golden spoon and fork.
Alfredo gave them the “recipe”. I put recipe in quotes for a reason. Try to imagine if a visitor asked you for the recipe for buttered toast. To any Italian, giving the “recipe” for pasta in bianco is just like that.
When they went back to Hollywood, they began to serve it to friends, telling them about Alfredo’s restaurant in Rome. Alfredo suddenly found Hollywood elite visiting his restaurant, looking for ‘Alfredo’s Fettuccine’, so it made its way to his menu. Pasta in bianco was now ‘Fettuccine Alfredo’, at least for the steady stream of tourists that frequented his place. Many actors also contributed photos, of course. The restaurant became a very popular tourist destination for Americans.
After several years, Alfredo sold his place to the person that runs it now. But he later got involved with another group of entrepreneurs, who opened another Alfredo (including Alfredo’s in New York, Vegas, and Disney). Fettuccine Alfredo became even more popular in America as a result, to the point that it became a staple in just about every Italian restaurant in the US. Of course,, as good Americans, we need to make everything bigger and better, so ‘Alfredo’ became a ‘sauce’ for just about everything, almost like a Starbucks ingredient for coffee. Chicken Alfredo, Shrimp Alfredo, Tomato Pesto Pasta Pine Alfredo….. ugh. People began to add cheese, pepper, starch, and who knows what… to the point that any white creamy thing that went with pasta became ‘Alfredo Sauce’. In America.
That is how much of what we believe to be Italian food came to be. Imported, morphed and combined shadows of what the real Italian thing was. I call it ‘New Yorkese’. Buca Di Beppo is not an Italian chain, it is a New Yorkese chain. Maggiano’s? New Yorkese. Olive Garden? No, I won’t even give Olive Garden such a high designation.
You won’t find spaghetti and meatballs in Italy. You will never find olive oil and herb dipping sauce with your bread. There will be no Chicken-Pesto pasta, and you won’t see a meat lover’s pizza. You will also never see Alfredo Sauce. That is, unless you happen upon the restaurant that exists with the sole purpose of capitalizing on the fact that you are seeking it out.
You can go there. It is in downtown Rome. They will have beautiful outdoor seating, they will have a people that will serenade you, and you will see the pictures all over the walls. And yes, you can order a dish of Pasta in Bianco. ummm, I mean Fettuccine Alfredo. You will be joined by nothing but other Americans that were looking for the same place, for the same reasons. You will find no Italians, no other Europeans, nada. This place is there just for Americans. If that is what you are after, by all means go and have a wonderful time. It is truly a pretty place. But for those that are looking for something authentic, by all means, keep walking. Since they don’t cater to Italians here, they can get away with low quality ingredients, producing low-quality food. Why? Because you are a tourist and you won’t know the difference. Why not stay home and go to Olive Garden if you want bad Italian food?
Actually, if you find yourself there and suddenly see what I am talking about, there is a great place next door called ReCafè, which makes fantastic pizza.
But if you really, really want it…
Hey, just because it is extremely simple, doesn’t make it bad, right? Actually, Pasta in bianco is a wonderful light dish, just not something one would pay a premium for. So when you are in Italy, don’t worry about the fact that it is not on the menu. If you want it, order Fettuccine In Bianco. If you want creamy, you can ask for Fettuccine Con Panna. It will be what you are looking for, but will be much better than what you will get at the Alfredo place. But if you go into ANY Italian restaurant and ask for ‘Alfredo Sauce’, they will certainly ask you who Alfredo Sauce is.