It's safe to say many, many Americans have tucked into a hearty dish of fettuccine Alfredo at some point in their lives. There are few things more comforting than pasta smothered in a rich cream sauce, after all.
But the original recipe for this dreamy dish is actually missing an ingredient that many home cooks and professional chefs rely on to achieve that creaminess — the cream.
In the early 1900s, Alfredo di Lelio, an Italian restaurant worker, created a dish for his pregnant wife who wasn't able to eat very much. He called it "pasta in bianco" — it was a deceptively simple recipe with just three ingredients: fresh fettuccine pasta, tossed with lots of butter and a lot of aged Parmigiano Reggiano.
In 1914, de Lelio opened his own restaurant in Rome and added the comforting dish to its menu. About a 15 years later, Hollywood stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks visited Alfredo's on their honeymoon and were wowed by the dish. They asked for the recipe and brought the dish back to the U.S., where it soon became a staple menu item at Italian restaurants across the country.
However, as the famous fettuccine Alfredo began circulating through restaurants and home kitchens, chefs started making modifications to de Lelio's deceptively simple dish.
"It got adapted to the western world where heavy cream was incorporated and it kind of lived here as a dish of butter, heavy cream and parmesan," chef Shea Gallante of New York City's Lincoln Ristorante told TODAY Food. "As chefs, what we’re always doing is looking for consistency to appeal to the clientele."
In the early days of his career, Gallante said he witnessed many casual Italian eateries using recipes with heavy cream. Some chefs would even finish the dish with an egg yolk to add an extra layer of richness, which is a habit he's kept over the years.
But why mess with a good thing?
Gallante diplomatically said both methods of making fettuccine Alfredo have their benefits, but the Americanized way of using heavy cream version has had a lot of staying power because it's usually easier to find cream than getting a boatload of high-quality Parmesan. Plus, from a technical standpoint, it's actually a pretty difficult recipe to perfect.
"The original is an artisanal technique," said the chef. "To make the emulsification without it breaking, it takes experience."
And while a lot of people may think fettuccine Alfredo is a fairly inexpensive dish (thanks, Olive Garden!), Parmesan can be very costly, so purchasing a lot of it might not be within everyone's budget. Cream helps stretch the dish. If he were whipping up a batch for customers, Gallante said he prefers the original version fettuccine Alfredo, but when he makes a big batch of it for his family, he uses heavy cream to keep things consistent.
"If we made (dishes of fettuccine Alfredo) side-by-side, nine out of 10 times they'd point and say 'What is that? That's pasta with butter sauce.'"