When you think of fettuccine Alfredo, the first thing that comes to mind likely isn't the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. But without the influence of 1920s silent-film stars Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and their star-studded dinner parties, the dish may not have achieved the celebrity status it has in America. And while the dish appears simple on paper, it is notoriously difficult to perfect. Tucker Shaw, executive editor of Cook’s Country, talks with managing producer Sally Swift about the glamorous history of this dish and reveals the secret to success in your home kitchen with this recipe for Fettuccine with Butter and Cheese.

Tucker Shaw
Tucker Shaw
(Photo: America's Test Kitchen)

Tucker Shaw: I have a story to tell you about old Hollywood. It starts in the 1920s when Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks came together. They were the King and Queen of Hollywood, the biggest movie stars in the world. It was a bit scandalous when they found each other because each of them was married to somebody else. This was one of the first great marriage scandals of Hollywood. It proved the concept that you could get divorced in Hollywood and still have a career.

Their life was extremely glamorous. They were loaded down with money and spent a great deal of time not just making movies but traveling, eating, and entertaining. They spent time in Rome in the mid-1920s and fell in love with a restaurateur in Rome called Alfredo di Lelio. He was known for a particular dish that he constructed out of three very basic ingredients: fettuccine, butter, and piles of parmesan cheese. According to his own legend – which may or may not be apocryphal – he’d invented this dish to feed to his wife who had been close to giving birth and having trouble keeping food down. This was a rich, caloric, easy-to-eat dish. He started serving it in the restaurant, and it caught on with customers like crazy. Of course, Mary and Douglas fell in love with the dish when they were there. They brought the idea of this dish back to Hollywood where they were famous for their dinner parties. They reconstructed the dish to serve to an A-list of Hollywood at that time: Gloria Swanson and Charlie Chaplin, the biggest names, not just in Hollywood but in the world. Presidents came to their house. Albert Einstein. Eventually this fettuccini dish became legendary. The recipe for that dish was published in a variety of places and began to take over. But home cooks had a very difficult time recreating it.

Sally Swift: It’s simple with just those three ingredients, but those ingredients were probably hard to find then, correct?

TS:  Almost impossible, unless you had fantastic Hollywood connections and tons of money. A regular cook in Anytown, USA was not able to get their hands on great Parmigiano-Reggiano or beautiful European-style butter.

SS: I expect that recipe went south? And I bet we know it today as fettuccine Alfredo?

TS: That’s exactly right. The thing is, when you have a very small list of ingredients – I am talking about three ingredients in this case – the pressure on each one of those ingredients is vastly increased; they cannot hide. If you were to take a bowl of noodles and simply toss in some butter and cheese, it’ll be delicious, but it’s not going to be that beautiful cohesive sauce. Instead of adding something to that sauce – which was our first impulse – we decided to take a step back and look at the technique to see if we could achieve what we wanted by using muscle and time. And we figured it out.

SS: It’s an assembly issue?

ALT INFOFettuccine with Butter and Cheese
(Photo: Keller +Keller)

TS: Exactly.

SS: What’s the secret?

TS:  Normally when we call to cook pasta, we say to boil it in four quarts or more of salted water. This will cook your pasta to al dente and keep it moving and keep it from sticking. But for this recipe, because we were eventually going to use some of that starchy water to help build our sauce, we needed to be very strict about the amount of water that we use. Adding starchy water to a pasta sauce is not a special idea. People do it all the time because it helps the sauce adhere to the pasta. But in this case, we needed extra starch in the water. We say to be very strict about the amount of water that you use -- just three quarts for a pound of pasta. Once the noodles have cooked, this will give you pasta water that has just the right amount of starch that you need to finish off the dish.

SS: And that water is going to be murky.

TS: It’s going to be murky, ugly, and unappealing, but trust me, it will make the difference.

You’ve cooked your noodles. Then you reserve one cup of this super starchy water and set it aside. Drain the noodles; return them to the pot. Add two cups of parmesan cheese. That is a lot, but go for it! That’s all you’ve got in this thing, so you might as well go for it. That is the sauce.

And you’ve got to get the real stuff. I’m talking about Parmigiano-Reggiano which comes from Italy; it must be imported. If you use a domestic cheese it just won’t work the same. You’ve got the noodles; dump in two cups of great parmesan, five tablespoons of butter that you cut up into little pieces, and a cup of pasta water. Then you start to toss. You toss vigorously for one minute; you really have to go for it, get it moving. Stretch out beforehand, whatever you need to do to not stop tossing. After this one minute, you will think again that all is lost. Because it will look like a total hot mess. Here’s what you do: put the top on the pot and walk away. You must walk away. Do not be tempted to go back into that pot. Sometimes this is the hardest thing about cooking, knowing when to leave something alone. Walk away for exactly one minute. Do whatever you need to do to distract yourself, do a couple of planks or something. And then you come back to the pot, take off the top, toss it for just 30 seconds, and you will have revealed to you a gorgeous, velvety cheese and butter sauce that is so much better than anything you’ve had that has been called Alfredo before.

SS: What a fun thing to do at a dinner party. How dramatic.

TS: Totally.

Sally Swift

Sally Swift is the managing producer and co-creator of The Splendid Table. Before developing the show, she worked in film, video and television, including stints at Twin Cities Public Television, Paisley Park, and Comic Relief with Billy Crystal. She also survived a stint as segment producer on The Jenny Jones Show.