Like the prolific author Stuart Woods’ protagonist Stone Barrington, when in New York I was a great fan of Elaine’s, once located on the Upper East Side. Stone favoured red meat, Stuart liked the osso bucco, but I always indulged in a Caesar salad followed by Fettuccine Alfredo.
Elaine Kaufman was a large and larger than life character, much missed since she died in 2011 at 81 and the place closed. She liked my English accent and said I sounded like Michael Caine, who had been a frequent guest in the late 60s. I was often in Manhattan at the time, but never saw any celebrities there. I expect that’s how I always found a table. Apparently, I missed Leonard Bernstein, Kirk Douglas, Clint Eastwood, Mick Jagger, Willie Nelson, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (who was apparently a great fan of the fettuccine Alfredo too), Luciano Pavarotti, Eli Wallach and Elaine Stritch, among others.
However, I did hear Elaine yelling and throwing things at the horrible paparazzo Ron Galella. A few years ago, I had to be nice to Galella, when he’d become a celebrity in his own mind. It was at a massive event I produced during the Toronto International Film Festival, attended by Robert F. Kennedy, Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy and a string of B-list film actors. Ron was in a wheelchair and obese. Say no more.
By the mid 70s I was married with children, on a tight budget, and hardly ever went to New York. I never had the occasion to return to Elaine’s.
Back in Toronto, I adopted the same dietary regime at Rugantino’s, where owner John Verrecchio long ruled. He was a friend and client of my late father in law, PR man David Scott-Atkinson, who ate there at least once a week. Mostly we went en famille because, in keeping with many Italian restos, they were child friendly. My three kids, Rebecca, Megan and Matthew, now all in their late 30s and early 40s, were teethed on the pasta.
Even though I’m a huge fan of Italian food, I’ve hardly visited Italy, an omission I hope to remedy if (or when) I ever move back to Europe. That’s why I’ve never been to either of the authentic homes of Fettuccine Alfredo. Yes, apparently there are two.
The story begins in 1892 with Alfredo di Lelio deciding to prepare a dish of fettuccine al burro (a traditional dish of pasta and butter with cheese) in his mother’s Roman restaurant. Making it with extra butter, in time it was named for him, especially as he prepared it with great flamboyance tableside. When his mother’s resto closed, he opened his own place. By the Roaring 20s, it was becoming well know to American travelers. Magazine articles and guidebooks of the era extolled the virtues of Alfredo’s dish. In 1927, film stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks gave him a set of gold cutlery. During WW II, Alfredo sold the restaurant to two of his waiters, but in 1950, with his son Armando, he opened up again, taking along the famous gold fork and spoon. The two restaurants engaged in vigorous competition each claiming to be ‘the king of fettuccine,’ ‘the real king of fettuccine,’ ‘the magician of fettuccine,’ ‘the emperor of fettuccine’ or ‘the real Alfredo.’ Visiting celebrities whose pictures adorned the walls included Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, Anthony Quinn, Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, Jack Lemmon, Ava Gardner, Tyrone Power, Sophia Loren, Ringo Starr and more, most featuring heaping plates of fettuccine and a grinning Alfredo.
The dish became so well known that Armando (also known as Alfredo II) was invited to demonstrate it both in Italy and abroad. The fame of the dish was built entirely on his father’s original performance, described by one writer in the 60s (translated from the Italian):
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 honor 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.
I believe you can still enjoy this spectacle at Il Vero Alfredo in Rome, where grandson Alfredo III has taken over the reins. I shall head there immediately lockdown and quarantine ends. It’s billed as ‘L’Imperatore delle fettuccine.’
The fettuccine that became popular in America, (though not particularly in England) and which I remember from Elaine’s and Rugantino’s, was much richer, with the addition of heavy cream and egg yolks.
- 1 lb / 0.5 kg approx. fresh fettuccine
- 2 TBSP butter
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- 1 cup whipping (35 per cent) or heavy cream
- 1 egg, yolk only
- 1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
- Pepper and salt
Preparation and cooking
- Bring 6 quarts generously salted water to a boil.
- While the water heats, melt the butter in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Sautée the garlic lightly, about 2 mins. Remove from the heat before it browns.
- Separate the egg yolk into a bowl, discarding the white, and whisk in the cream until blended. Pour this mixture into the garlic butter and blend further. Reduce heat to low and keep the sauce warm. Do not let it boil.
- Meanwhile, cook the pasta until al dente, 4 to 6 mins. Drain in a colander, being careful to reserve 1/2 cup of pasta water.
- Pour the hot pasta into the cream mixture and toss to coat, still over low heat. Add the grated cheese and keep tossing gently until cream is mostly absorbed. If the sauce gets too thick, add a little pasta water. Season generously with salt and pepper and serve at once in warm bowls.
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This is Nigel’s 279th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well, if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories. Here is the link to Market to Table: The Cookbook, a bargain at $11.50. The link to Gentleman’s Portion: The Cookbook is now live, even better priced at $9.99 or £9.99.
Categories: Simply food