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Growing up in Brooklyn, my family would sometimes go to Marco Polo restaurant, where my sister would invariably order the fettuccine Alfredo and I invariably would not. There was almost no food that I found to be too rich, but that platter of cheese-loaded, cream-soaked pasta crossed the line. I thought it was disgusting.
But during those same years I'd also sometimes go to my friend John's house, where his Italian-American mom would feed us well. One of the dishes she often made was pastina, those tiny little dried-pasta stars that cook up into a porridge-like consistency, in a butter and Parmesan sauce. I loved it so much, and to this day it's one of those few comfort foods that instantly transports me back to my childhood.
Now here's what's weird: Both those dishes were pasta in Alfredo sauce. One I hated and one I loved.
I didn't know it at the time, but the butter-cheese sauce at John's house was even more of a true Alfredo sauce than the extra thick and creamy one at Marco Polo, at least according to the original Roman version. And we know what the original Roman version was because it's a modern invention with a well-documented history.
Okay, it's not technically correct to say that it's a modern invention, in that pasta with butter and Parmesan is nearly as old as pasta, butter, and Parmesan themselves. But the dish we today call fettuccine Alfredo was created by a Roman named Alfredo shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, who went on to become the talk of the town, a favorite of the Hollywood jet set, and a key player in a long-running rivalry with his former headwaiter as to who really owned the rights to the recipe. None of that is particularly important.
What is important is the recipe itself, and, according to David Downie in his excellent Cooking the Roman Way, it contains absolutely no cream, black pepper, or other ingredients beyond pasta, cheese, butter, and salt. (Downie knew the grandson of the original Alfredo, and learned the recipe from him, so we can be pretty confident that he's got his facts right.)
Even without the cream and other ingredients, though, that original recipe is still a doozy: For a single pound of fresh pasta, Alfredo added two-thirds of a cup of butter and more than a quarter-pound of cheese. That's overkill by just about any standard, and so my mission here is a simple one. I want to offer a slightly modified version of the original that creates a similarly creamy, cheesy, buttery sauce without it being quite so grotesque in its proportions.
Astute Serious Eats readers will, at this point, probably remember that this isn't the first time we've lightened fettuccine Alfredo on the site. Kenji tackled it a couple years ago with his recipe. But there's a key difference: Kenji was tinkering with the even heavier, creamier version that is more common at Italian restaurants in the United States. That's the one Marco Polo in Brooklyn used to serve (the one that my sister adored). If she were cooking, it's Kenji's recipe that she'd want to make.
But she's not, and, as I told you, I never liked that one in the first place. No, to me, the original's simplicity wins out. With no cream to dull the cheese and butter flavor, and no additional ingredients like pepper and herbs to distract, the focus is squarely on that interplay of sweet Parmesan and rich butterfat. That's the magic right there. In fact, that flavor profile is so important that you want to make sure you don't get a piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano that's been aged too long—it's a more delicate young parm that makes the dish, not a spicy old one. The cheese should be aged for no more than 18 months (Grana Padano, which tends to be aged less than Parmigiano-Reggiano is another really good choice here.)
Of course, my mission is also a much simpler one than Kenji's. Without the extra thick cream sauce he was trying to lighten, all I had to do was tweak a couple basic ratios to turn my version of fettuccine Alfredo into slightly less of a gut-bomb. Don't worry, it's still plenty enough of a gut bomb.
Where the original recipe uses more than a stick of butter for a pound of pasta, mine dials it down to a single stick. And where the original calls for more than five ounces of cheese, mine cuts that back to a mere four ounces. (See what I mean? I'm hardly giving you the diet version here.)
Making it is incredibly easy. In a large, heatproof bowl, you'll want to combine the grated cheese and diced butter. For emulsified cheese sauces like this, it's best to grate the cheese on the small holes of a box grater: The tiny bits of box-grated cheese melt into the sauce better and more evenly than the larger shavings from something like a microplane.
Then, cook the pasta—preferably fresh egg noodles—in salted boiling water. No need for a large pot here, you want the water as starch-rich as it can get. Finally, transfer the pasta to the bowl of cheese and butter, add about a half cup of that starchy pasta water, and toss well until the butter melts and a creamy, emulsified sauce forms and coats each noodle in a satiny glaze. The starchy pasta water is essential to helping hold that emulsion and prevent the sauce from separating in a greasy, broken mess. If it's too dry, just add another splash or two of pasta water.
Then transfer it to plates and top with more grated cheese. This is a fettuccine Alfredo that trims the excess but still leaves the indulgence firmly in place. If only I'd know this was an option when I was a kid.