Lifting the cloche on another piece of food history, this week we discuss the origins of Alfredo sauce. At first glance this sauce may beg the question, “is this sauce even Italian?” Noodles with butter and cheese? Sure, but it’s a far cry from the ubiquitous spaghetti marinara (I hope you also see the irony in Italy’s most iconic food involving the tomato, a fruit that wasn’t native to the country, and only introduced after the exploration of the Americas). So how did Alfredo di Lelio invent Alfredo sauce?
To start, Alfredo di Lelio is a real person who was a restauranteur in Rome in the early 1900’s. The story goes that his wife had lost her appetite after giving birth, and after becoming weak and ill Alfredo was trying to find a dish that would encourage her to eat. So this restaurant owner came up with a dish of pasta with butter and parmesan. It was simple enough but it did the trick, and while this plate sounds like something you might eat in college, it made its way onto the menu at his restaurant and eventually spread its way through popularity.
So here’s why Alfredo sauce makes sense. Italy, like every country, is regional. While Rome is in the center of Italy, many would consider it the north. Let’s also not forget that Rome is the capital city of Italy, so it would naturally have access to many different ingredients. While southern Italy is hot with farms and coastline (agriculture and fish), the north is rich with meat and dairy. Its proximity to the Swiss, French, and Austrians has also left its mark on the food of the north. Do rich, luxurious pasta noodles with butter, cheese, and garlic sound closer in context to a dish from a region that’s close to the French or Swiss? Sure does to me.