Rome Then & Now: The Truth about Fettuccine Alfredo

Fettuccine Alfredo—the real deal, anyway—is served at just two restaurants in Italy, but its popularity has exploded abroad.

Everyone has heard of fettuccine Alfredo, sometimes called “Alfredo pasta” abroad. So much so that when I lived in Houston as a child, my 9-year-old friend Allison ordered it at a restaurant.

Apparently, Alfredo pasta was very well known in the States. Too bad its Americanized version would make Alfredo himself turn over in his grave. 

When Allison’s Alfredo arrived at the table, it looked nothing like the original recipe I had tasted in Rome. The pasta was drenched in a white sauce (heavy cream, most likely)—lots and lots of it. There were pieces of cheese that weren’t Parmesan, and the worst part is that there was parsley. Parsley! 

As Allison ate her Americanized Alfredo, I thought to myself,  “you can call that pasta whatever you want, but that’s not Alfredo’s pasta.” 

So what is the real fettuccine Alfredo, anyway—and how did it become so drastically different abroad?

The real fettuccine Alfredo is hard to find in Rome. Here's why.

Photo Credit: Diogo Cortiz, Text Overlay: Devour Rome Food Tours

The original fettuccine Alfredo

The real Alfredo sauce is delicious because of its simplicity. The only ingredients are butter, Parmesan cheese and pepper. That’s it! There’s no heavy cream nor parsley. And this type of pasta dish is strictly served with fettuccine, likely due to the fact that this type of egg pasta is ideal for capturing the creaminess of the sauce. 

READ MORE: The Survival Guide to Pasta Shapes in Italy: How to Order Like You Know What You’re Doing

Fettuccine noodles before being cooked
The ingredients and shape of fettuccine noodles make them an ideal pairing for creamy sauces.

So why is it even called Alfredo pasta? Simple: a man named Alfredo di Lelio invented it. He came up with this famous dish right here in Rome in 1908. Legend says that his wife had lost her appetite after giving birth, so he came up with this simple but delicious pasta recipe. Soon, it made an appearance on the menu at the family restaurant. 

But how did fettuccine Alfredo gain the international spotlight?

In the 1920s, Hollywood stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford came to Rome on their honeymoon. After tasting the dish and falling in love with its simplicity, they asked Alfredo for the recipe, which he gave them. To express their gratitude, the couple sent Alfredo a set of golden silverware engraved with the words “to Alfredo, the King of the Noodles.”

As soon as they got back to Hollywood, they spread the word of the delicious pasta, which went on to take the United States by storm.

Soon, Alfredo’s restaurant became the place in Rome for international movie stars and directors. Everyone from Sophia Loren to Frank Sinatra and Brigitte Bardot descended upon Alfredo alla Scrofa to taste the famous fettuccine Alfredo everyone was talking about in Hollywood. 

The original fettuccine Alfredo, made with just Parmesan cheese, pepper and butter.
The original Alfredo sauce recipe is deceptively simple (and dare we say, much better than the cream-drenched versions popular abroad!). Photo credit: Meliciousm

Fettuccine Alfredo today

The dish was exported all over the world, along with its variations. But the original fettuccine Alfredo can only be tasted in Rome at two restaurants in the historic center: Alfredo alla Scrofa and Il Vero Alfredo

Alfredo alla Scrofa is the original restaurant that Alfredo di Lelio later sold to a new owner in 1943. Il Vero Alfredo is the restaurant at Piazza Augusto Imperatore that Alfredo and his son Armando opened in 1950. 

But what has changed more than 100 years after the dish was invented? 

The dish never took off in its homeland—in fact, no restaurants in Italy, apart from the two Alfredos, serve it. In Italy, it’s more of a dish you make at home when you have very few ingredients in your fridge. To tell the truth, it isn’t that famous here in Rome, and many people don’t even know it’s a thing.

Overseas, though, it’s still famous, with its notorious variations that range from parsley and heavy cream to shrimp and chicken. 

American-style Fettuccine alfredo with chicken
This creamy, parsley-dotted pasta dish loaded down with chicken might be delicious in its own right, but it’s a far cry from the original fettuccine Alfredo! Photo credit: Christine Chau

As for the two restaurants in Rome, let’s just say that you won’t see movie stars hanging out there anymore. Today, the most frequent guests are tourists (you’ll be hard-pressed to find an Italian customer) looking to relive the good old days of an unforgettable era. But they are in fact the only two restaurants in Italy (and around the world) where the real fettuccine Alfredo can be tasted—with not a drop of heavy cream in sight.

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4 Comment

  1. Carolyn Schreiber says
    October 22, 2019 at 1:00 pm

    I find your article iny, always believed Alfredo had cream in it. Actually, what I like when in is Pasta Carbonara. Last time I was there, I had it every day, knowing I couldn’t find it in the states

    Reply
    1. Devour Tours says
      October 28, 2019 at 8:29 am

      Thanks for reading, Carolyn! A lot of people are definitely surprised to learn that real fettuccine alfredo and carbonara pasta aren’t made with cream here in Rome—but in our book, these authentic versions are even better!

      Reply
  2. Jo Ann Donlon says
    November 6, 2019 at 5:13 pm

    I know I am coming late to the party but wanted to add my two cents. I agree with the way fettuccine Alfredo is made in Italy but what exactly is the difference between that and cavil e Pepe?

    Reply
    1. Devour Tours says
      November 12, 2019 at 8:55 am

      Hi Jo Ann—traditional Roman cacio e pepe uses pecorino romano cheese instead of Parmesan, doesn’t include butter, and is a lot heavier on the black pepper than the original fettuccine Alfredo recipe. It also typically is made with tonnarelli pasta (similar to spaghetti, but thicker) rather than fettuccine. And unlike Alfredo pasta, it’s one of the most authentic and typical dishes you can find in Rome, so definitely a better choice!

      Reply

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