First of all, Fettuccine Alfredo is not an Italian dish even though it was “invented” in Rome. It is full of butter, cream, and parmesan, and Italians almost never put cream on pasta. In Rome, the city of pasta alla carbonara, this recipe does not have a drop of cream. (See “Italian Food that isn’t Italian,” a post from October 3, 2016.)
The story goes that the origins of the dish date back to 1908. Ines, the wife of Alfredo Di Lelio, owner and cook of a small restaurant in Rome’s piazza Rosa, had just given birth to little Alfredo, but she was weak and had no appetite. The husband prepared a fresh pasta and seasoned it with plenty of butter and parmesan. She liked it, ate it every day and returned to good health. She then asked him to put in on the restaurant’s menu. The restaurant moved to larger quarters in via della Scrofa in Rome in 1914.
Then in 1920, as one story goes, American film stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, came to Rome on their honeymoon. They fell in love with this glutinous dish. When they returned home and described it to their friends, all of Hollywood couldn’t wait to taste it. Fairbanks and Pickford sent to Alfredo and Ines a photo of themselves at the restaurant and two gold-plated service cutlery with the engraving, “To Alfredo, king of noodles.” The restaurant in via della Scrofa became a destination for the Hollywood elite and international VIPs, as more and more photos accumulated on the walls.
Then in 1948, Di Lelio sold his restaurant—and everything in it—to the Mozzetti family, who kept the name and the menu and all the photos on the wall. The family still manages it. But in 1950 Alfredo and his son opened another restaurant, Il Vero Alfredo, which today is managed by the grandchildren. Now both restaurants claim to be the originator of the dish, and both have a set of the gold-plated cutlery from Fairbanks and Pickford! But wasn’t the dish invented in the small restaurant in piazza Rosa?
The friendly rivalry has continued over the years, even during the Festival of Fettucine Alfredo celebrated every February. The irony is that you will only find alfredo sauce at these two competing restaurants, where the fettuccine is mixed tableside with the famous gold fork and spoon. Singers serenade the diners. It sounds like a perfect tourist trap.
Elsewhere in Rome and in Italy you should ask for fettuccine al burro, fettuccine burro e parmigiana, or pasta in bianco. No one will know what you’re talking about if you ask for fettuccine Alfredo.