Travel supposedly expands horizons, but sometimes I have traveled only a few miles from home for expansive, new experiences. A generation ago, the Trattoria da Alfredo, in a storefront space on Eighth Avenue and Twelfth Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village, opened worlds for the spouse and me. Until then, Italian food was only a pizza-shaped object and spaghetti covered in bottled Ragu containing browned ground meat and topped with something that Kraft labeled “parmesan.” Alfredo’s gave us our first taste of fresh pasta in innovative, but simple, sauces. It all tasted ethereal.
The restaurant did not have a set menu. Instead, each time we went, we found a choice of six or eight pasta dishes and perhaps two meat ones. They were all reasonably priced, which means that in our straitened circumstances back then, we could just afford them, but adding to the attractiveness of the place to us, it did not have a liquor license. It was BYOB (without a corkage fee!), and so we would bring a bottle of wine from our cache of inexpensive, yet still drinkable to our not-yet-tested palates, wine. All in all, this made for a wonderful dining experience.
The pasta dishes were unlike anything we had experienced before because this was fresh pasta. The sizes and shapes were often unknown to us, but, of course, the texture was also different from our boxed Ronzoni. At Alfredo’s we learned that the sauce did not just have to cling or drip from the pasta but that the pasta could absorb the sauce—a new taste experience. We also learned that meat dishes could be delicious even though simply prepared, as they were at this trattoria. Less was often tastier than complicated.
One night after the dinner rush and we were almost ready to go home, the chef-owner Alfredo Viazzi came into the dining room. I am sure that he must have talked to other patrons, but I know that he talked to us. We learned that he had come to New York City from Savona, Italy, about fifteen years earlier. Savona, he told us, was in the northwest corner of Italy on the sea. We effusively praised the food and his restaurant. I finally asked if he made the pasta. To my surprise, he said that he generally bought it at Raffetto’s. I assumed that was some restaurant supplier not available to the public, but he explained that it was a fresh pasta store open to the public just a few blocks away.
Fresh pasta was not something easily obtainedd in those days. (Of course, it is not as easy today as some markets try to pretend, for often what is passed off as fresh pasta in the refrigerator cases is hardly that.) Sharing his source was an act of graciousness on Alfredo’s part. He did not have to do that, for as far as he knew, now knowing the sources of excellent fresh pasta, we might never come back.
I did start going to Raffetto’s. It was always amazing to watch their medieval-seeming pasta cutting machine as some sort of guillotine cut large sheets of pasta dough into the desired width. Soon, their black pepper linguine became a favorite and a staple of many of our dinner parties. Raffetto’s is still there. It is still marvelous.
When I think of Trattoria da Alfredo, I think of my introduction to Northern Italian cuisine, of a line from that little, innovative restaurant to the marvelous cookbooks of Marcella Hazen, and to trips to Italy and meals eaten in Venice and Bergamo and Florence and elsewhere. But when I think of Alfredo Viazzi, I also think of his graciousness and charm. It reminds me of the graciousness and charm of another, even more well-known, chef.
(concluded March 18)