One of the little games I used to play with my guests in Rome was looking together at the pasta menu of the restaurant we used to sit at, and asking them if they’re noticing anything strange. Maybe something that is not there. Since my guests are intelligent, they always managed to spot the missing dishes, that you would probably find in Italian restaurants – outside of Italy. That would be “Rosè” and Alfredo, of course.
When I told Wonderful V. about “Rosè” sauce it seemed that she couldn’t understand what I was saying. In fact, it seemed that she couldn’t understand the words I said. “What do you mean cream and tomatoes? Why would someone put cream in a pasta dish? Wait, do you mean two different plates of pasta? No?! Cream and tomatoes on the same plate?!”
Luckily, I had already accumulated enough points for Wonderful V. not to charge me for the Israeli variant of pasta. Nevertheless, I cannot deny that I gave my word (quite easily) that I will never prepare this at home.
And what is Alfredo (not only in Israel)? Well, that would be cream and mushrooms, an Italian classic, right?
Well, no. Oh no.
Alfredo Di Lelio’s mother Angelina owned a restaurant around Piazza Rosa in the center of Rome, and in 1906 Alfredo moved to the front seat. In 1908 his wife Ines gave birth to their firstborn son Armando, and Alfredo wondered which dish he could prepare to help his lovely wife to recover.
One of the pasta dishes on the restaurant’s menu combined fettuccine pasta, butter, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. That’s it. An old recipe that had appeared in cookbooks already since the 15th century, and usually never left the house kitchen. Alfredo took the original recipe and make it stronger. How? Double the butter, of course! “Doppio burro”, in Italian. And some versions claim that he went even triple-dosed butter! Such an amount of butter surely helped Ines to get her strength back, and Alfredo’s prayers to Sant’Anna, the patron saint of the new mothers for sure helped a lot.
In 1910 Piazza Rosa was demolished to build Galleria Colonna, today Galleria Alberto Sordi, a refined shopping mall, and Alfredo had to move. The restaurant’s new location was set in Via della Scrofa (“Sow Street”), probably after a relief depicting a sow that can still be seen on one of the walls.
History and story say that Alfredo achieved success not long after that when the restaurant – and especially the fettuccine dish – “was recommended” in Sinclair Lewis’ book – “Babbitt”. Lewis, who had a great and passionate love for Rome (where he also died in 1951), was already a shooting star in American literature skies after “Main Street”. In one of the scenes in “Babbitt” Mrs. McKelvey, to whom the mediocre real estate agent George F. Babbitt’s looked up, describes her future trip to Rome. Babbitt, who tries to show off his knowledge about the world, asks:
“I suppose you see a lot of pictures and music and curios and everything there?”
And Mrs. McKelvey answers:
“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”
Wow. I suppose any restaurant would be very happy to get such a recommendation from a future Nobel prize winner.
The big success came some later in the ’20s, when Alfredo was paid a visit by Mary Pickford and her husband Douglas Fairbanks, the super-couple of their era. They both were enchanted by the fettuccine dish and after returning to the USA they told all their superstars’ friends about it. Yet, in America “only” butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano are not enough, and back then importing the cheese wasn’t as easy as today, so cream was cheerfully added. But since in America “only” cream is not enough, the pasta plate, which had no longer fettuccine in, accompanied chicken, shrimp, peas, and even “Alfredo steak”. In Israel, since you cannot combine meat and dairy products, the main combination is cream and mushrooms.
So, there’s “Alfredo” in the USA, and there’s “Alfredo” in Israel, but does it mean that you cannot find Alfredo in Rome – or Italy?
Not exactly. The original recipe of butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano can be found only in two restaurants.
During WWII Alfredo decided to retire and on 5th May 1943 sold it to two of his waiters: Giuseppe Mozzetti and Ubaldo Salvatori, whose heirs still run the place in Via della Scrofa. I call it “The original Alfredo”.
In 1950 Alfredo got upset that the two call themselves “Kings of Fettucine”, an alias he wished to keep for himself, and decided to get back to business. Together with his son Armando, who got the alias “Alfredo II” – and their iconic mustaches – he opened, at about 5 minutes walking from “The original Alfredo” his new place – “The real Alfredo” (“Il Vero Alfredo”). Success didn’t leave Alfredo and he and his son continued to host the ‘50s-‘60s-‘70s VIP, who enjoyed the rather unusual style of serving, straight out of Alfredo’s hands. The good old days…
Many years later also Armando’s son – Alfredo III, obviously – took the restaurant into his hands, and these days it is run by his sister Ines and her daughter Chiara Cuomo.
Both places claim ownership of the original recipe. “The Real” ones claim: “It is our grandfather’s!”, and “The Original” ones answer: ”True, but your grandfather sold it to our grandfathers!” The walls in both places are packed with photos of any big name you can imagine that ate the famous fettuccine dish. And both claim ownership also of a golden plated cutlery set, personally engraved and sent to Alfredo I by Pickford and Fairbanks as a gift, thanking him for his hospitality.
On “The Real Alfredo” website it says that Pickford and Fairbanks visited the restaurant “on their honeymoon”, but the date on the cutlery is “July 1927”, 7 years after they got married (and 9 years before they got divorced). And how is it possible that between all the photos of both restaurants, there’s not even one of them? Wait, there’s no photo of them at all in Rome in July 1927! You might say that paparazzi weren’t a common thing back then, but here is their photo from a visit they paid to Rome in June 1926. Yes, they’re doing what you think they’re doing, a very common gesture back then. On that very photographed visit to Rome, the couple also met Italy’s fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini.
Each of the two restaurants has its loyal clientele, most of them are not Italian but tourists who chase food myths, and the photos on the walls in both establishments present the pride they have in the politicians, actors, musicians, and sports figures that tried the famous dish.
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And in both restaurants, the trained waiters will stand by your table and mix very well the pasta – that was cooked for exactly 30 seconds! – into the butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano until all the dish is well amalgamated.
Here Alfredo III proves that it’s all in the wrist.
I also wanted to taste the myth, and after a long persuasion crusade Wonderful V. agreed to join me on the trip in time which is “Il Vero Alfredo”. You can actually feel the history oozing from the photos on the walls: Alfred Hitchcock and Charlton Heston, Orson Wells, Sophia Loren and Sylvester Stallone, Kennedy and Nixon, King Hussein, and also Recep Tayyip Erdogan. All eating the same dish that we were about to try. Wonderful V., reminding me that her grandmother used to prepare this dish for her as comfort food, fiercely refused to order it for herself: “I will not pay 18 Euros for pasta with butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano!” – which is exactly that. Lots of butter, lots of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a traditional ceremony which takes place by your table and gives… fettuccine with lots of butter and lots of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
If you’d like to try the real sauce at home, you can find it on “The Original Alfredo” website – 15 Euros per jar.
Who is the real Alfredo? Which one of the stories is the real one? Is there a real one? Does it matter? Once again it proves that myth doesn’t have a price tag.