Turns out, the beloved Italian-American creamy pasta has a bit of a glamorous history.
Creamy, decadent fettucine alfredo is a staple at many Italian restaurants here in the U.S., and with good reason—it’s just plain delicious. It’s also a dish that many Italians will be quick to tell you isn’t authentically Italian. But while fettucine alfredo is a distinctly American creation, its history is much more glamorous than you might think, and it does have its roots in Rome.
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford and the Pickfair Estate
The story goes back to the early days of Hollywood, when the movie industry exploded with the silent films of the 1910s and ’20s. Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford were the era’s first celebrity couple, known as the “King of Hollywood” and “America’s Sweetheart,” and they both commanded record-breaking salaries. When the two actors got married at the height of their fame in 1920, it was international news, and fans caused riots outside their hotels as they honeymooned in London and Paris. Back in California, their palatial home, called “Pickfair” (the first celebrity couple name!), was the place for all of Hollywood’s most powerful people to dine and network.
Chef Alfredo Di Lelio with his signature pasta
It was at Pickfair that fettucine alfredo made its American debut. On their European honeymoon, Pickford and Fairbanks had dined at a trattoria in Rome owned by the charismatic chef Alfredo Di Lelio, and he served them his signature pasta, fettucine al triplo burro. It was his take on a simple meal that Italians have made for kids and the unwell for generations—pasta tossed with butter, parmigiano, and a little pasta water to make a smooth sauce—that he had created to please his wife when she was pregnant and unable to tolerate most food. The extra butter in his version, initially added to keep his wife from losing weight during pregnancy, made the dish deliciously decadent. The meal captivated the American stars, who asked Alfredo to share his recipe.
Back home, Fairbanks and Pickford were eager to share a taste of their European travels with their Hollywood pals. The only problem? The trick of emulsifying the cheese and butter with hot pasta water was foreign to the American couple and their chefs, and they found it difficult to achieve the trademark creamy sauce without adding, well, cream (try Giada's Fettuccine Alfredo here!). Their “fettucine Alfredo” was an immediate sensation, and to show their appreciation, they sent Chef Alfredo a golden fork and spoon engraved “to Alfredo, the king of noodles.”