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 at another time. 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. It was my first real grownup party with professionals, all dressed up and drinking cocktails. Of course, with my very Italian last name and my New York accent, I stood out. I fit the image of the stereotypical Italian. Frequently the conversations drifted to Italy and what they understood Italian culture to be. I didn’t know about many of the things they were saying, but since I was just a kid not nearly as worldly as they, I didn’t admit my ignorance. One guest at the party raved about something called fettuccini Alfredo. I had never heard of the dish before, never saw it on the menus at the restaurants back home.
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. Something was wrong. It wasn’t until years later the I learned the truth.
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 people add 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, as Americans make it, just doesn’t seem to fit traditional Italian food customs, in my opinion. It is just too much, overly done. My personal preference is for food that is less complex, not as heavy. Food is like love. Just as the heart wants what the heart wants, the stomach wants what is wants.
Fettuccini Alfredo may not be 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 U.S. which is fine if that is what you enjoy. As for me…