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There are Italian-cuisine snobs who wouldn't deign to sniff at a plate of fettuccini Alfredo, much less put any of it in their mouths. But I am not one of those snobs. I don't give a hoot if Alfredo di Lelio whipped up the dish that made him immortal as bland pabulum to soothe his pregnant wife, who, having gone off food entirely, could be coaxed to swallow only a little something when presented with a bowl of fresh noodles mixed with butter and parmesan. Nor does it bother me that di Lelio later razzle-dazzled the unschooled palates of American movie stars and moguls at his eponymous restaurant by tossing up great vats of the stuff tableside. I don't care that fettuccini Alfredo is basically the Roman version of mac and cheese, suitable only for bambinos and grown-up Italians who have to "eat white" because they don't feel so good. I'm solidly with the 17.5 percent of IFOCE respondents who report that they'll happily dig in to a mess of fettuccini at least "10 times a month."
Americans owe their romance with fettuccini to Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Honeymooning in Rome in the summer of 1920, the famous silent-screen duo had it prepared by extravagant Alfredo himself, and they were hooked enough to go back every night for another round. When they got home to Hollywood, Fairbanks and Pickford made sure their favorite chefs learned the recipe. Restaurant Alfredo Imperatore still serves it, expensively and largely to tourists.
Fettuccini may be the only food on Earth that remains unimproved by the addition of butter and cream. A good "white" fettuccini requires neither. There's no cream in the original fettuccini Alfredo, and at Romantico Ristorante in Pompano Beach, chef-owner Michael di Bella is such a purist that he doesn't even use butter much less garlic, parsley, white flour, or any other faux ingredient. This tiny neighborhood trattoria, which could hardly seat a single extended Italian family, is run by Michael; his wife, Yolanda; and their adorable baby daughter, Rosalina. Di Bella earned his fettuccini chops from mentor Tonino Tizzano, Romantico's previous owner. Tizzano reputedly imported his method from Modena. Here's how you make it:
Take one gigantic wheel of imported Parmigiano Reggiano, cut it in half, and scoop out the center to make an enormous bowl. Add an inch or two of water to soften the cheese, and let it rest until dinnertime on a center table in your dining room. When a customer orders the fettuccini alla Romantico, take your soft, fresh, homemade fettuccini, cooked al dente, and throw it into the parmesan wheel with some pasta water. Toss the fettuccini, simultaneously scraping around the Parmigiano bowl to incorporate plenty of cheese, with great gusto and a show of muscle. Add a grinding of pepper.
We experienced this grand spectacle of the fettuccini, performed by handsome young Michael di Bella, on Columbus Day Eve, the most politically incorrect of holidays. We'd been nursing a nostalgic yen for some down-home Italian-American cooking. The next day, we knew, Antonin Scalia would be leading the Long Island Columbus Day parade, and thousands of Italian families were going to be sitting down to the kind of sauce-heavy fare my Sicilian spouse's forebears used to eat when they lived in Brooklyn, way before Christopher Columbus was demoted from semi-saint to "slave-trading Indian killer." Romantico, it turns out, got its start under the aegis of the Tizzano brothers on Long Island, which is heavily populated by the toughest second- and third-generation food critics any restaurateur will ever face. You either get your clams oreganata right or you slink away in disgrace. Tonino Tizzano got it right, then replicated his recipes in Pompano Beach when he opened Romantico in 1998. Last year, wanting to retire, he handed over the place to his protégé, 25-year-old di Bella.
Di Bella has kept Tizzano's menu, along with 30 or 40 rotating specials, a solid wine list that leans heavily toward the boot (you'll find specials like Amarone, $85, chalked on the blackboard), and Tizzano's signature dishes. Tizzano taught di Bella his secret recipes for fettuccini, scaloppine Romantico, veal, everything eggplant, fresh mozzarella, and desserts like panettone bread pudding and Italian cheesecake. Since he doesn't have a walk-in cooler, di Bella says he shops daily for produce, fish, and meat sometimes venturing next door to the wonderful Caffe Roma market for staples like Marsala. He makes his own desserts from scratch, except for one luscious imported profiterole. And he stays in touch with Tizzano almost constantly for advice, support, and new recipes Tizzano picks up during trips to the old country.