Fettuccine, Lasagne and Alfredo

Whenever I travel abroad, I never go for Italian restaurants. Not any more. First of all because I enjoy tasting the typical flavours of the countries I visit, those surprising combinations of food I would never think of at home, secondly because I have never been able to find a decent one, only bad copies and so I gave up. What lacks in the majority of Italian restaurants abroad is the real Italian thing. Even something elementary like an espresso is never like what it tastes at home – not even the five-pound Lavazza cup of coffee at Harrods was close to the original one –  it is not a matter of water or the quality of coffee, but rather it is a matter culture. Yes, culture, because food is an expression of cultures. Every dish is the final product of cooking rituals transmitted from generations to generations, gestures that date back in time. That is why it is difficult to reproduce a recipe of another country faithfully, even a good cup of tea, unless you understand it fully and you become sensitive enough to perceive its many nuances.That is culture. I still remember the dexterity my mother prepared home-made tagliatelle, those precious movements that she had learnt from her mother and grandmother. I have seen her so many times, that if I would venture to make them myself, I would know what to do: the doses, the correct thickness of pasta layer ect., as it is part of my culture.

I remember once I gave an intensive class to some English friends of mine who were very fond of Italian cooking, on how to prepare a true Italian lasagna properly : ragout, cheese, the right  numbers of pasta layers, cream sauce…. I told them everything so that they eventually had all the necessary information and secrets to prepare a marvellous one. So after practicing a while, one day they decided they had become good enough to invite me for dinner and try their lasagna. Indeed I was surprised. About 300 meters before reaching the gate of their house, I started to smell something pungent in the air, something like….onion! Onion? I had never mentioned the word onion, but they thought that in my recipe there was something lacking and  that something for them was onion, actually, tons of onion! I might have turned my back, but I did not. I politely ate it all, with some effort, could I have acted otherwise? The enormous quantity of onion used to prepare the ragout had made it indigestible, at least for me. When I eventually finished my portion they asked: ” Did you enjoy it?”  What could I say?” Of course” was my answer . “It seems truly Italian, doesn’t it” “Truly” I couldn’t but reply. ” Some more?” “ NO!

The point is that the majority of those restaurants, which pretend to be Italian, keep in their menus recipes which are not Italian at all or have contaminated the original ones with the more familiar flavours of the countries they have their business, just to please and attract new customers. For example, only abroad I have learnt about the existence of an Italian recipe called “Tagliatelle Bolognese”, that is tagliatelle with a thick ragout, but actually no Italian would associate the wordBolognese” to that dish. And what about the famous “Fettuccine(i) Alfredo?” Fist of all, who is Alfredo? This “Italian” recipe is well-known mostly in the States, but completely unknown here. It actually reminds those typical dishes in fashion in the late eighties: pasta, 3/4 types of cheese and cream – in the eighties cream was very fashionable – . As far as I can imagine, as I have never dared experience such a delicacy, if you don’t eat it quickly, it might turn into concrete in a few seconds. So if you come here having in mind  to order a good portion of “Fettuccine Alfredo”, this is the wrong country, you have to go back from where you started very likely.

Another point to be discussed is pasta cooking time. Here in Italy we enjoy it “al dente” that is a minute less that the indicated cooking time, even two if you come from the South, but whenever I used to order it abroad, it was always overcooked if not creamy. Just disgusting. Yet, cooking pasta Italian style shouldn’t be that difficult: when the water boils, add some salt, put the pasta in the pot, wait for the indicated time, better a little less and that’s it. And would you like to know what is tastiest truly Italian pasta recipe ? The simplest one. Just few steps. Blanch some fresh plum tomatoes to remove their skins and then cut them in half lengthwise to scoop out the seeds. Afterwards chop them and set them aside in a bowl. Heat some good olive oil in a skillet pan, add a couple of cloves of garlic and let them brown slowly. Then add the tomatoes you had prepared beforehand, a pinch of salt and take the garlic out. While the sauce simmers, heat the water for the pasta. Cook the spaghetti and drain them, when it is time. Add the pasta to the sauce and cook over medium-high heat until all the liquid is absorbed and the pasta is al dente. You may add the pasta cooking liquid if necessary. As last step, remove the pan from the heat; add some extra-virgin olive oil, few leaves of basil, parmisan or pecorino cheese. Just delicious and Italian. And remember, less is more !!

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18 thoughts on “Fettuccine, Lasagne and Alfredo

  1. Completely agree about Italian restaurant. In 40 years, I’ve only crossed paths with two that I’d even consider revisiting.

    But, I must recoil in horror at the mention of tomatoes in the same sentence as pasta. My preferred — and I contend only method — to consume pasta is slightly buttered and salted. If possible, augment with a bit of shredded mozzarella and oven-bake for just long enough to melt the cheese but not brown anything.

    Side Note: I’ve tried ordering that here in the States and other than one vegan restaurant, no one ever did it right; I always get pasta (not al dente) swimming in enough butter that it might be considered a broth.

    If one must put some sort of sauce on it, it should be a meat sauce with tomatoes relegated to a supporting role both in the taste and color department. (See: svazetto di manzo)

    • I was given pasta al burro when I was sick ( it is “served” in hospitals,in fact). Pasta, a little butter and parmesan cheese, but I would not call it an Italian recipe. But as you don’t like tomatoes, I guess you might enjoy pasta “cacio e pepe” ( cheese and pepper, lots of pepper) or carbonara.

  2. I have lived on faux Italiano for many scores of years! A new life lies before me if only a few years. By the way, I have heard of an English actor and writer who was most noted for his Italian cooking and was kept around for just that purpose. It as at the time of QE I (they don’t make QEs as they once did, and the poor fellow could not even spell his name the same way twice. By the way, all his cooking was done without tomatoes! And he never cook English food properly. Remember, when cooking vegetables, green beans for example, do not overcook them, boil them for two hours only, not one hour longer!
    Okay, seriously, I grew up in the part of the United States known for bland food. When I was about twelve or so, my mother came home with most unusual sandwiches, they were assembled without real Wonder Bread or Sunbeam Bread, and we’re without peanut butter, jelly, Velveeta cheese, or Marshmallow Fluff.
    What an experience, revelation! It was a while before we had them frequently, but I now greatly enjoy subs heroes, grinders, whatever you want to call them. You could call that an old timer’s log cabin story for today.

  3. Interesting post. When I was in Italy last summer, I enjoyed the fresh ingredients and simple recipes. This, too me, seems very Italian. When I make spaghetti sauce, I enjoy rosemary and oregano, even though I’m guessing you would say is not Italian. Which is fine. I liked your definition of culture and how food plays a huge role in that.

  4. Prof! I am 1/4 Calabrese (grandmother side) and you are a full one! I would expect that you (like me) venerate onions, especially red ones! Though I can very much understand your reaction when tasting these supposed “Italian lasagnas” (by the way, the correct plural is Lasagne, folks). Perhaps, when asked if you wanted more, you could have replied with: “I would prefer not to” 🙂

    Anyway, reading your post made me think of this, it seems just too accurate not to mention:

    Go to minute 4:00, grab popcorns. You are welcome

    • First of all, I am 50% Calabrese and 50% Marchigiana and true born Roman. For what concerns onion, I do enjoy it, but in the right dose and when you prepare a ragout you should add celery and carrot to onion for the mirepoix. Love fresh red onion. 😜

      • I imagined you were already aware of it. My spanish flatmate showed it to me and we had fun discussing those “italian rants”. I think we can spare the audience here 🙂

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