DR. GEORGE K. York is a food scientist with the University of California. He is spending a good deal of time and money studying the chemical repercussions of combining eggs, flour and water. In other words: PhD. studies pasta.
This may sound like the tamperings of another bogus art-and-sciences grant recipient, but York has made significant progress in his field. He has developed a formula for the best pasta -- a mixture of 60 percent durhma wheat, 40 percent semolina in correct proportion to eggs. He knows how different varieties of flour oxidize and how baking soda in water affects pasta (which is not at all) and what different shades of yellow mean in fresh pasta. However, none of this, York says, is as important as the cooking technique -- especially the length of time the pasta is cooked.
Imagine tossing a pile of silk stocking in the air in slow motion. A perfectly prepared plate of fresh al dente pasta should be just as light as the pile of hose -- not sticky or heavy, but delicately elastic and smooth, one noodle slipping softly past the next. Overcooking results in noodle kugel pudding.
To test the perfect pasta we chose the simplest dish -- fettuccine Alfredo.
There are three recognizable tastes in fettuccine Alfredo: pasta, cream and parmesan cheese. This is a classical combination, difficult to foul up, but like a failing student, too often badly prepared. In tasting 13 preparations of fettuccine Alfredo in the Washington area, we found three distinct problems: overcooked pasta; thin, watery cream and a paucity of parmesan.
It is doubtful the original Alfredo would suffer from any of these findings. According to Giuliano Bugialli, author of "The Fine Art of Italian Cooking," calling it '"Alfredo' is giving too much credit to a restauranteur in Rome who clearly did not invent it." He traces its origin to northern Italy and cites different names for the dish -- tagliatelle alla panna in Bologna and doppio burro or salsa al burro e formaggio, the correct terms in Rome. Fettuccini (the plural of fettuccine) or "small ribbons" is Roman dialect for standard Italian tagliatelle noodles.
At its best pasta Alfredo (or whoever) must be freshly made and cooked al dente (literally "to the tooth" or cooked, but still firm). For the sauce, ultrapasteurized cream, a rather insipid cream, is better replaced by simple pasteurized cream (available in health food stores and High's) combined with unsalted butter. The parmesan should be grated immediately before adding it to the cream (dried cheese from a jar is not acceptable) and freshly grated white pepper and grated nutmeg added to the sauce. In short, the key to an excellent Alfredo is freshness.
In a selection of restaurants based on letters sent in by readers and other recommendations, we tested fettuccine Alfredo and came up with the results below. This is just a test of one dish and is no reflection on the service or any other offerings of the restaurant. Also note that ordering pasta is like ordering steak -- if you like it al dente or cooked longer, do not hesitate to tell the waiter. Same goes for the nutmeg and freshly ground white or black pepper. If you want it, ask for it.
Tiberio Restaurant, 1915 K St. NW: Just like Alfredo used to make, except here it is called fettuccine alla panna. The al dente pasta was feathery, elastic and the smooth cream, butter and cheese sauce lightly coated the noodles. The parmesan cheese was thoroughly incorporated in the sauce, to avoid a grainy texture. The entire dish was seasoned with freshly ground black pepper and nutmeg. (Expensive).
Cantina d'Italia, 1214-A 18th St. NW: The fresh, airy fettuccine is covered with a light, cheesy cream sauce so deceiving you don't recognize the calories adding up. Ask for it, as it is not on the menu. (Expensive).
Homemade: Homemade pasta is always best. See recipe below.
Lido di Venezia, 200 North Glebe Road, Arlington, Va.: Don't let the office-building entrance put you off. The dish was as good as the above, but lacking cheese and nutmeg. A doggy bag was offered for unfinished pasta. (Expensive).
Romeo and Juliet, 2020 K. St. NW: An abundance of thick cream sauce generously spiked with parmesan cheese covered fresh pasta that was slightly too to the tooth to be ultimo. (Expensive).
Cafe Italiano, 3516 Connecticut Ave. NW: The noodles come from Vace's Italian market next door, and like all of Vace's fresh frozen pasta, it was delicious. The fettuccini was thick enough to hold the sauce (we found that the thinner noodles were light, but did not have enough bulk and slid down the throat before the tastebuds were fed). The cream sauce was one of the richest we tasted and there was no scrimping on the cheese. Certainly the best deal for the money. (Moderate to inexpensive).
Nathan's, 3150 M St. NW: The new chef here is giving the right directions. There wasn't enough cheese in the sauce, but rather than offering you grated parmesan cheese that has had a chance to dry out, a waiter offers to grate the cheese at the table until you say "when." At today's parmesan prices, this is a generous addition. (Expensive).
NON C'E MALE
Il Giardino, 1110 21st St. NW: There was nothing offensive about the preparation of the fettuccine Alfredo, but there wasn't much taste either. The noodles were too thin and slightly overcooked. The cheese was almost absent and what was offered on the side was not as fresh as it could have been. a(Expensive).
Roma Restaurant, 3419 Connecticut Ave. NW: To represent the restaurants who are supplied fresh pasta by Pasta Works, we chose the Roma. It was not a good choice. The pasta was lifeless and thin, the sauce wan and dull. (Inexpensive).
Alpine Restaurant, 4770 Lee Highway, Arlington, Va.: The Alpine is certainly better than this dish. It was a disappointment to taste a runny, bland cream sauce and starchy pasta. (Moderate).
Cafe Italia, 519 23rd St., Arlington, Va,: For a pizzeria it could have been worse, but the effort is missing from the fettuccini to make it anything more than overcooked noodles in a watery cream sauce topped with dried parsley. (Inexpensive).
Yolanda's Al Campidoglio, 223 Pennsylvania Ave., NW: What's a nice girl like this doing serving up (if you have the patience to wait long enough) a milky, squishy pasta soup and mistakenly calling it fettuccine Alfredo? Where are our standards? (Moderate to expensive).
Petitto's, 2653 Connecticut Ave. NW: You lift up one noodle with your fork and the whole bundle follows, which is fine if you like soggy noddle puddings. (Moderate).
Pines of Rome, 4709 Hampton Lane, Bethesda, Md.: This is such a homey neighborhood restaurant that we can't understand how they could allow themselves to serve a fettuccine Alfredo with curdled sauce. The pasta was sticky and floury. It must have been a bad day for everyone. (Inexpensive).
HOMEMADE FETTUCCINE ALFREDO
This is one of those dishes in which you throw a little of this and a little of that, depending on your taste.
Fresh Pasta: This you can buy fresh frozen at Vace's (363-1999) or make yourself with a very strong arm or pasta machine. For 4 servings, use 2 eggs and 1 3/4 cups flour* (durham is suggested, but it is harder to work with than all-purpose). On a firm surface put the flour in a mound and form a well. Break eggs into well and with a fork or fingers beat the eggs lightly, using your hand as a wall so the eggs don't run out of the well. Continue mixing the eggs and flour until you have a thick enough mixture to work with. It may feel sticky. If so, add more flour and knead until the dough is no longer sticky and comes off the surface. The dough should be stiff. Let rest for about 30 minutes, covered with a bowl.
To roll out dough, flour surface, place dough on it and flatten it with hands and fingers. Lift the far edges of the dough and pull toward you, folding the dough flat. Do this on all sides of the dough until every side has been pulled out and folded over until silky smooth.
Divide the dough into quarters and roll out, turning the dough, pressing away from yourself rather than pressing down to make a uniform shape (this takes a lot of strength) as thin as possible. Do not let the dough become dry.
Roll the dough like a jelly roll and cut slice 1/4-inch wide. Unroll each noodle after cutting and let dry on the back of a wooden chair until leathery, when they can still be bent without breaking.
To cook noodles allow 4 quarters of salted boiling water for a pound of noodles. Stir occasionally to keep from sticking. Taste the pasta to judge doneness. Remove from heat and drain in a colander.Do not rinse.
Sauce: These are the basic proportions for 1 pound of fresh pasta (4 servings), but you can fiddle around and add more cheese, butter or cream according to taste. Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a saucepan over very low heat (you can do this in the final stages of cooking the pasta).Gradually add 1 cup heavy cream and 2 or 3 ounces of freshly grated parmesan cheese. (Four ounces of cheese equals 1 cup grated). Stir over very low heat until cheese has melted. Add a few scraps of freshly grated nutmeg and pepper to taste. Toss fettuccini with cream sauce and serve immediately with extra fresh grated parmesan.
*For 5 to 6 servings, use 3 eggs and 2 3/4 cups flour. For 7 to 8 servings, use 4 eggs and 3 3/4 cups flour.