Throwback Thursday: Fettuccine Alfredo

Throwback Thursday: Fettuccine Alfredo
Tony Jackman’s Fettuccine Alfredo, served on dinnerware by Mervyn Gers Ceramics. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Fettuccine Alfredo, or Fettuccine all’Alfredo, if you’d like it to be authentically Italian, has only three ingredients: pasta, butter, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

There’s greatness in simplicity, and this dish is among the finest examples of this truth. All that there was in the original Italian recipe was pasta, butter and Parmesan; nothing else. If you add cream, it’s the American variation, which also often has parsley in it. Americans often add onions, even garlic, too. And the more you add to it, the further away it is from being an authentic Alfredo.

The origins of the dish lie in an older Italian classic, fettuccine al burro; quite simply, pasta with butter. The legend is that Chef Alfredo di Lelio was concerned about his wife’s lack of appetite after giving birth in the first decade of the 20th century, and whipped up some fettuccine al burro, but increased the quantities of both butter and Parmesan to give it more flavour in the hope that this would perk up her appetite. He dubbed it fettuccine al triplo burro (the name was to change in time to fettuccine all’Alfredo or fettuccine Alfredo) and also increased the ratio of Parmigiano-Reggiano in it, preferring the cheese at the heart of the wheel, with its sweet intensity.

Everything in the dish speaks of generosity and his love for his wife and then unborn child, who would turn out to be Armando, who would succeed Alfredo in the business many years later.

He obviously tasted and liked it himself, because he put it on his menu in Rome where, as further legend has it, many years later in 1927, who should walk in but silent movie stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. But this was only years later, with World War I intervening. Back home was a Prohibition America starving for tastes denied them.

Much pride was taken in the dish. On his ristorante menu it was somewhat immodestly named maestosissime fettuccine all’Alfredo, which translates as “most majestic fettuccine, Alfredo style”. A 1967 account quoted by Wikipedia explains the famous ritual of the dish: “[The fettuccine] are seasoned with plenty of butter and fat parmesan, not aged, so that, in a ritual of extraordinary theatricality, the owner mixes the pasta and lifts it high to serve it, the white threads of cheese gilded with butter and the bright yellow of the ribbons of egg pasta offering an eyeful for the customer; at the end of the ceremony, the guest of honour is presented the golden cutlery and the serving dish, where the blond fettuccine roll around in the pale gold of the seasonings. 

“It’s worth seeing the whole ceremony. The owner, son of old Alfredo and looking exactly like him … bends over the great skein of fettuccine, fixes it intensely, his eyes half-closed, and dives into mixing it, waving the golden cutlery with grand gestures, like an orchestra conductor, with his sinister upwards-pointing twirled moustache dancing up and down, pinkies in the air, a rapt gaze, flailing elbows.”

Well. Not all of that happened in the Jackman kitchen this week, but I did turn out a pasta dish we were delighted with. Nor did we twirl and toss it with golden cutlery, this tradition having been sparked by a gift of a golden knife and fork by Fairbanks and Pickford on a later visit to Rome.

The key to the dish and its success is not those three core ingredients, but pasta water. In fact, it could even be listed as an additional ingredient, because it is the emulsification of the hot water in which the fettuccine has been cooked with the butter and Parmesan that creates the creaminess of the sauce that then surrounds the pasta.

(Serves 2)


6 to 8 nests of fettuccine

80 g salted butter

100 g finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

A pinch of salt (optional)

A pinch of black pepper (optional)

Pasta water


Bring a deep pot of water to a rapid boil. Drop in the pasta nests all at once, then prod them with a wooden spoon to encourage the strands of pasta to separate. Cook until al dente, then drain into a bowl, reserving the pasta water.

Pour a cup of the pasta water back into the pasta pot. Add a tablespoon of the butter at a time, whisking it into the pasta water until it has all been used up. Continue whisking while adding the cheese a little at a time, until you have a creamy sauce that is rendered creamy not by the addition of any cream but by the emulsification of the pasta water with the cheese and butter. You can add more pasta water if you like, as long as the sauce remains emulsified. And by all means add more butter and for that matter Parmesan. It’s the creamy, emulsified result that is the point, so keep going until it’s right. And don’t be stingy with the butter and cheese; this is a fine dish worthy of these ingredients in their heroic simplicity.

All that remains is to toss the cooked fettuccine through this, and serve. If you like, you can add a little black pepper and a tiny bit of salt, but served unadulterated is perfect. Grating a little more Parmesan on top is not a problem at all. DM/TGIFood

Mervyn Gers Ceramics supplies dinnerware for the styling of some TGIFood shoots.

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks. Share your versions of his recipes with him on Instagram and he’ll see them and respond.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Arthur G says:

    I make the sauce with butter, Grana Padano (since Parmigiano Reggiano became so expensive), pasta water, and (horrors) a little sour cream. (It’s usually in the fridge and I don’t need to make cream using my Kenwood Chef attachment.) But I have always wondered why almost all SA restaurants add ham and mushrooms. Where did that come from?

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