March 1, 2012 |

2012 March: Alfredo The Great

By Katie Ayoub

Alfredo is a rich, decadent cream sauce with legions of followers. Created by Roman restaurateur Alfredo di Lello in the 1920s, classic Alfredo sauce sees a blend of heavy cream, butter, Parmesan and a generous grinding of black pepper. Fettuccine is Alfredo’s favorite pasta, but this versatile sauce is finding its way across the menu — as a base for white pizza, a dipping sauce for fried apps and as a sauce for pastas other than fettuccine, like ravioli and baked rigatoni. Some restaurants are making their Alfredo signature — with either pitch-perfect execution or memorable variations (Cajun-spiced Alfredo, anyone?). But like all cream sauces, making it takes care and attention…and the raw ingredients used in Alfredo aren’t inexpensive. Why make it in-house? Pizza Today spoke with operators who make Alfredo from scratch—with the profit margins to prove that it’s a worthy endeavor.

“When I’m interviewing a new line cook, one of my first questions is, ‘Can you make an Alfredo sauce?’” says Monte Salem, manager/co-owner of Marco Polo Pizzeria in New Haven, Connecticut. Fettuccine Alfredo is one of this 40-seat Italian-style pizzeria’s most popular pastas. Another bestseller? Cajun Alfredo with Grilled Chicken. For his Alfredo sauce, Salem combines heavy cream with Parmesan and light spices. “We don’t add butter,” he says. “If you add butter, it’s too heavy.” For the Cajun version, he adds Cajun seasoning to the sauce. “It’s a simple variation, but a really successful one. People like the added heat,” he says. When cooking the sauce, he recommends patience. “You have to be patient with Alfredo. If you leave it too long on the stove, it will scorch and get too thick,” says Salem. The staff cooks the dishes to order, so Alfredo sauce is made continually throughout service. He pegs the food cost between 25 and 30 percent.

Salem says from-scratch cookery is an important benchmark for Marco Polo. “Our business is based on homemade sauces and soups,” he says. “Our customers expect it. It’s a mark of freshness, so it’s very important to them. You can try to save time with pre-made, but you’ll pay for it in other ways.”

Mama Roni’s Pizza in Fort Collins, Colorado, has learned that lesson and is changing up its back-of-house strategy. This two-store concept just switched to house-made Alfredo. Previously, the line cooks mixed a powdered sauce with milk and water, doctoring it with cheese to bolster the flavor and texture. And before that, the restaurant sourced a ready-made bagged product that tasted good, but was costly. It also blocked the brand’s ability to claim craftsmanship. “We used to get pretty good feedback on the bagged sauce,” says Owner Greg Thomas, “but the first question we would get after they complimented it was, ‘Is it homemade?’ We wanted a better answer.”

At press time, Thomas was working on the Alfredo recipe. So far: heavy cream, Parmesan, other cheeses, seasoning and garlic. “We’re just trying to figure out how much butter to add, or maybe cream cheese instead,” he says. “We’re trying to make a signature, out-of-this-world Alfredo, so we’re tweaking it until it’s perfect.”

How will it impact the bottom line? “It’s really not going to affect food cost too much, but it will add more in labor,” says Thomas. “But, it’s worth it. Not only can we brand it as homemade, but we’re putting money into the local payroll to people who really need it.”

Mama Roni’s from-scratch Alfredo shows up across the menu. On its Chicken Alfredo Pizza, housemade dough gets topped with Alfredo sauce, minced garlic and mozzarella. Sliced chicken, tomato, mushroom and more mozzarella go over the sauce. Once baked, shaved Parmesan finishes the pizza. In its Cheesy Fettuccine baked pasta, pre-boiled noodles get tossed in Alfredo sauce and then placed in a foil round, topped with bacon and a mix of provolone and mozzarella. It is then baked until brown and bubbly.

At Sal’s Pizza & Italian Eatery in Santa Barbara, California, Alfredo sauce stars in five dishes. Salvador Esquivel, owner of this 26-seat restaurant with a bustling take-out and delivery arm, says the challenge with Alfredo is in the details. “You need to pay attention to the sauce,” he says. “You can’t heat the cream too fast or it will burn and evaporate, then you have to throw it away.” He recommends cooking it over a low flame for 15 minutes, stirring regularly. He has trained two employees how to make the Alfredo sauce. “I will only let those two make it, and when I trained them, I watched them closely until they got it just right,” says Esquivel. The restaurant makes a big batch of the sauce before service, keeping it on a low flame throughout the shift.

His recipe diverges from the classic, calling for heavy cream, butter, Parmesan cheese, white wine, garlic, salt and white pepper. Penne Peppe, starring Alfredo, roasted red pepper and sausage, is one of Sal’s top three pastas. Pizza Bianca is a solid performer on the pizza menu, and boasts a thin crust, Alfredo sauce, mozzarella, mushrooms, tomato and chicken. The No. 1 seller? Cajun Fettuccine. This pasta sees Alfredo blended with Cajun spices and topped with Cajun-spiced chicken. And food cost? “The ingredients are expensive, but they balance out with how inexpensive pasta is, so it still makes the numbers look good, and you just can’t beat the word-of-mouth you get from a good Alfredo,” says Esquivel.

Katie Ayoub is a frequent contributor to Pizza Today. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.