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The majority of restaurants in Italy don’t serve fettuccine Alfredo, and the ones that do are either mostly feeding American tourists or they’re somehow connected to that Alfredo, the one whose name became synonymous with a sauce that still isn’t exactly what he famously “created” more than a century ago.
According to the sauce’s origin story, a restaurant owner named Alfredo di Lielo kept fixing plates of buttered pasta for his pregnant wife, to help her deal with her ongoing bouts of morning sickness. The simple combination of pasta, butter, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese did the trick, and she encouraged him to put it on the menu of his joint in Rome — despite the fact that buttered noodles tended to be so basic that, well, you wouldn’t necessarily go to a restaurant to eat it.
Regardless Alfredo started preparing it tableside, and all that butter and cheese became a hit — especially with visiting Americans. By the mid-1920s, Rome had become a popular filming destination for Hollywood flicks, and after box-office faves Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford ate at Alfredo’s, they went back to California raving about it. Their celebrity pals started hitting Alfredo’s on their own trips to Italy, and you can juuust about guess what they all ordered.
A writer for the Saturday Evening Post also ate at Alfredo’s and he couldn’t stop talking about it in his columns — but in the following years when curious American cooks eventually tried recreating the sauce, their comparatively bland post-war versions of butter and cheese lacked the richness of what Alfredo could make in Rome. That led to the addition of heavy cream, and ultimately to the “Alfredo” sauce that has become a standard “Italian” dish in the good ol’ United States.
Alfredo sauce has also become a staple on grocery store shelves, and there are literally dozens of pre-made versions to choose from. And, because I wanted to find out how much Alfredo sauce is too much Alfredo sauce, I tested them out for you.
I went shopping for all the jars I could get my hands on and decided to stick with just Alfredo sauce — no roasted garlic versions, no pesto alfredo, no pine nuts, nothing. I ended up with 10 jars and all of them were purchased from a supermarket, a big-box retailer, and two specialty grocery stores (read: they’re all easy to get throughout the country).
Next, I made 10 tiny portions of fettuccine Alfredo and made notes as I ate all of them. (If you’re thinking of trying this at home, don’t.) A lot of the sauces were just too … something. They were either too heavy, too clumpy, too “mass-manufactured” tasting, or too wrong. And one tasted almost exactly like white sausage gravy, which was both surprising and terrifying.
But my two favorites were the ones that, honestly, had the lightest (read: the least overpowering) flavors.
The first runner-up was Little Italy in the Bronx Alfredo Sauce, which had a delicate hint of garlic that complemented its very real Parm-Regg. But my favorite was Rao’s Alfredo Sauce, which had a real depth to its flavor, perhaps because it uses a blend of Parmesan and Romano cheeses. (And yes, Rao’s was also my top choice when it came to marinara sauce.) I could taste the cream and the butter and the cheese. It was rich but not over-the-top like some of the other jars in the taste test. Honestly, it took every bit of willpower in me to not eat the Rao’s stuff with a spoon as if it were a heaping bowl of soup. (It can’t be that much worse for you than, say, a bowl of chowder, right?)
Buy: Rao’s Homemade Alfredo Sauce, $6.24 for 15 ounces at Walmart
As for The Alfredo, he sold his original restaurant on Via della Scrofa in Rome to his son, who then sold it to a pair of the restaurant’s waiters. But four years later, he opened a new restaurant in Piazza Augusto Imperator, and he called it Il Vero Alfredo (The Real Alfredo). Both restaurants are still open — Alfredo’s grandson still serves that signature pasta at Il Vero Alfredo — but if you go, don’t you dare ask if they’re going to put cream in it.
Do you have a favorite brand of jarred Alfredo sauce? Tell us about it in the comments below.