A Perfect Dinner for Two — or for Entertaining Special Friends
Fettuccine Alfredo appears frequently on Italian restaurant menus, particularly those that concentrate on northern Italian food. The really pricey places might shave fresh white truffles over the pasta, sending an already sumptuous dish into the stratosphere.
Restaurants with a high “snoot” factor used to prepare it tableside. That’s rarely seen these days — maybe because it’s a bit over the top. But it’s also authentic. Alfredo di Lelio, the inventor of the dish and proprietor of the Roman restaurant now called Alfredo alla Scrofa, used to do the same.
His eatery was a hit with tourists during the Jazz Age. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks reportedly visited Alfredo’s restaurant in 1927 and took a liking to his signature dish. According to Wikipedia, they presented di Lelio with “a golden fork and spoon”— which he then began using to serve his fettucine.
Despite its aura of elegance and luxury, Fettuccine Alfredo is actually a simple and quick recipe. Once you have your pasta-cooking water at a boil, you can prepare and be eating this dish in under 5 minutes.
And you don’t need a gold fork and spoon.
Originally, this dish was an extravagant version of a traditional Italian recipe, Pasta al Burro, which uses only butter and Parmesan cheese as flavorings (a similar concept to Pasta Cacio e Pepe). The recipe for Fettuccine Alfredo doubled (or even tripled) the amount of butter and Parmesan that you’d traditionally use in Pasta al Burro, and mixed in some pasta cooking water to form a little sauce. The result was a rich, flavorful dish.
Most modern versions of the recipe (including this one) reduce the amount of butter and Parmesan cheese and add cream to help form a sauce. And why not? Cream is essentially liquid butter (butter was cream before it was churned, after all).
So the recipe I present here isn’t the original one used in Alfredo’s kitchen, but it’s awfully good. And in my book that’s all that matters.
This recipe serves 3 to 4 as a main dish, or about 6 to 8 as an appetizer. My recipe is adapted from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter (may increase to 4 tablespoons; use a good-quality butter like Plugra)
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream, divided
- ~1 pound fresh homemade fettuccine (may substitute store-bought fresh fettuccine or ¾ pound dried fettuccine)
- 2½ ounces grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for adding at table (use the expensive imported stuff; this is about 1 cup firmly packed grated cheese)
- salt to taste
- black pepper to taste
- scant 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (optional; it’s good, but I rarely bother)
- optional garnish of chopped parsley or fresh basil
- Put water on to boil for the pasta.
- When the water is almost at a boil, add butter to a large Dutch oven (I use a 6-quart) or a 12-inch or larger frying pan (something with high sides like the Dutch oven works better). Over medium heat, melt the butter, add about 2/3 cup of the heavy cream, and heat for a minute or so until the cream begins to reduce. About this time, the pasta water should be at a boil; remove the pan with the butter/cream mixture from the heat.
- Add salt to the water (about a tablespoon per gallon), then add the pasta. Stir so it won’t stick. If you’re using fresh pasta, it should be cooked in anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes, depending on how thick it is. Usually it takes a minute to a minute and a half; I begin testing at the 45-second mark. When the pasta is al dente (or done to your preference), drain in a colander.
- Immediately pour drained pasta into the butter/cream pan, return pan to medium-low heat, and toss pasta in the butter/cream sauce. Your want to coat the pasta with the sauce.
- Add the rest of the cream and the Parmesan, salt and pepper to taste, and nutmeg if using. Toss the pasta again until it’s nicely coated. Taste and adjust salt and pepper.
- Serve with additional grated Parmesan. I often garnish with chopped parsley or fresh basil.
- The exact quantity of fettuccine isn’t critical; if you have more or less than the amount called for, you can slightly increase/decrease the amount of butter, cream, and Parmesan cheese you’re using.
- Fresh fettuccine is the pasta of choice for this dish. If you use the boxed, dried stuff, the dish will still be quite good, but you’ll miss a subtle dimension. Fresh homemade fettuccine is best, although it does take a bit of time to make. I think most of the “fresh” pastas sold in the supermarket (in those plastic containers) tend to be over-priced and under-flavored — but they’ll do in a pinch. Locally produced artisan pasta usually is wonderful. So if you have access to that, buy it!
- Although it’s not traditional, adding extra freshly ground black pepper — a teaspoon or more — is a delicious riff.
- In the United States, we tend to give measurements in volume rather than weight. For this dish, however, ingredient weight is important, especially when it comes to the Parmesan cheese. You want your grated Parmesan to weigh at least 2 ounces. So be careful: If you’re using a Microplane to grate the cheese, you can quickly fill a cup with fluffy, fine Parmesan flakes. But such finely grated cheese will weigh scarcely an ounce (only about half as much as coarsely grated cheese would weigh).
- If possible, use a scale to weigh your cheese (if you don’t have a kitchen scale, you really should put it on your wish list). If you aren’t able to weigh the cheese, you should really pack it into the cup when measuring. Alfredo di Lelio’s original recipe probably called for 3 or 4 times the amount of cheese I specify here, so don’t worry about using too much.
- The best discussion of the original, “authentic” Fettuccine Alfredo that I’ve seen is by Todd Coleman in Saveur magazine. You can find the article here and his reconstructed recipe here.
- If you see a recipe for Fettuccine Alfredo that calls for flour or another starch to thicken the sauce — run away! Cream thickens naturally and quickly, and the flavor of a starch-thickened sauce, for this recipe, will be inferior.
- Unfortunately, at some lower-end restaurants you may encounter starch-thickened Alfredo sauce. I’ve had bad versions that compared unfavorably to library paste.
Fettuccine Alfredo is rich, luscious, and (if you overindulge) fattening. All prime attributes for a company dish! Or for a romantic dinner à deux (break out the good champagne).
This is one of those recipes that seems complicated to people who don’t know how to make it. In truth, though, it’s a snap to cook and assemble.
But you don’t have to let them know that, do you? Just let them think you’re a hero in the kitchen.
If you serve this dish, you will be.
You may also enjoy reading about:
Pasta Cacio e Pepe
Pasta with Quick Tomato and Bacon Sauce