Fettucini Alfredo

In 1914, Ines, the wife of Alfredo di Lelio, who ran a restaurant on the Via della Scrofa in Rome, was suffering from almost incessant nausea during her pregnancy with her first child. One of the few foods she was able to keep down was a dish of plain pasta, pasta in bianco, or white pasta, Alfredo made fresh and tossed with butter and grated Parmesan. Alfredo eventually added it to the restaurant’s menu, where in 1920 it was tasted by Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, who were visiting the city on their honeymoon. That day, the pasta happened to be fettuccini. They asked for the recipe, brought it home to the States, and sent a gift of a gold fork and spoon engraved with the words, “to Alfredo the King of the noodles” and their names.

Eating “Alfredo’s fettuccine” on trips to Rome became a destination for the Hollywood elite, and other tourists followed suit. Di Lilio sold the restaurant in 1943, but the new owner kept the restaurant’s name (Alfredo alla Scrofa), the menu, and the celebrity photos on the wall. In 1950, Alfredo and his son Armando opened another restaurant, Il Vero Alfredo, “the true Alfredo,” which is now managed by Alfredo’s grandchildren. Both restaurants claim to have originated the dish. Fettuccine alfredo, which in Italy is nothing more than buttered noodles with dry cheese, didn’t take off in Italy as it did in the United States, where it was popularized by another Alfredo’s opened by di Lilio and a partner near Rockefeller Center in New York City.

An American alfredo (with cream) is at best a simple reduction with a good hard grating cheese like Parmesan or Romano, prepared for individual servings to be eaten immediately. You can use almost any pasta, but you must use whole cream and freshly grated cheese (none of that stuff in the round green container, okay?) Cook the pasta beforehand, using about six to eight ounces of uncooked pasta per serving, making two cups or so cooked until just done, coated with vegetable oil and stored in a sealed container. When ready, heat your saucepan, add about three tablespoons butter (be generous), then working quickly, add a very generous handful of pasta, toss to coat with butter, then add about a half cup cream. Toss again while adding enough grated cheese to make a thick, creamy sauce. You shouldn’t need salt, just a little pepper. Serve at once.

Basic Caponata

Not long ago a friend said that he who ate the first eggplant was much more courageous than he who ate the first oyster. (Yes, they were both guys; Urk, the Australopithecus I channel to know such things told me so). Oysters, after all, are mere mollusks while eggplants are noxious nightshades. Since eggplant must be gussied up quite a bit before I’ll make a meal with it, I agreed with fervor. Fortunately, the eggplant, like Cher, has so little character that it’s a pliable basis for dozens of really good dishes such as this Sicilian nosh which itself has many variations, served hot or cold, as a side or a spread. A friend makes vegetarian muffalettas with it, and while purists may wail, there’s nothing to stop you from using caponata instead of olive relish on a meat muffaletta. It’s simple to make, keeps well, and the flavor improves with age. This recipe makes about a quart.

Peel and cube one large eggplant, stew in olive oil with a finely-minced clove of garlic and about half a cup each of chopped celery and sweet onion. This is one of the few recipes you’ll find me recommending a sweet onion; caponata is a sweet/sour concoction, and I prefer to use vegetables and dried fruit for the sweetness instead of sugar. You’ll add maybe a rind of smoked sweet red pepper (a ripe pickled cherry is a nice touch, too), a scant handful of chopped olives and a tablespoon or two of tomato paste to round out the (somewhat) savory elements along with a jolt of strong red wine for both you and the pan. For out-and-out sweetness, use a half cup of dried fruit, figs being excruciatingly appropriate, but don’t let that stop you from using the raisins, dates or apricots you have on hand. A heaping teaspoon of capers (the eponymous and therefore compulsory component) gives enough salt. and a measure of herbal vinegar will set the tartness. With seasonings you’re on your own, but don’t use too much of anything; let the meld define the flavor.