This month, we sat down with Russell Bellanca, co-owner of Alfredo 100 in Midtown Manhattan. Russell shared his journey from his beginnings as the son of a famous restaurateur to becoming an innovative entrepreneur, balancing a fresh perspective on fine dining while maintaining the traditions of Italian Cuisine, especially the original Fettuccini Alfredo. We hope you enjoy our visit with Russell!
1. We remember your father, Guido Bellanca, from the days of Alfredo’s di Roma in New York and Orlando at EPCOT. What is your first memory of the restaurant business?
My first recollection of the business was eating in my father’s newly opened Alfredo di Roma in 1977 in Manhattan. My brother and I were in high school in New Hampshire and would take the bus into the city to visit my father at the restaurant. It was fun trying the many dishes and getting to know the restaurant staff who would regularly talk about what a difficult enterprise it was to open and the long hours they worked to keep the restaurant going. It felt like home. We continued visiting on college breaks from upstate New York. Little did I know that after college, I would eventually work with my father in every facet of the industry from cooking, bar tending, accounting, and eventually as a restaurant manager. My dad liked having the help of his two sons and soon enough we were bouncing around between three operations, with Alfredo’s in EPCOT Center in Orlando, Florida, in Philadelphia and of course New York City. Fortunately we spoke Italian and could communicate well with the various Italian personnel. I found myself becoming very personable with our guests and enjoyed explaining the history and many unique things that made our restaurants special. Marketing the restaurants and the Alfredo brand became second nature.
2. The story of Alfredo de Lelio, the creator of The Original Fettuccini Alfredo, is enchanting. What does his story mean to you today at Alfredo 100?
The story of Alfredo is intertwined with the identity of Alfredo 100. We celebrate his creation by paying homage to his great restaurant that started so many years ago in Rome. The dish itself was created due to Alfredo’s wife, Ines, losing her appetite after childbirth. Alfredo made a bowl of buttered fettuccini, added in fresh Romano cheese and served it to her to help her regain her strength. This beginning makes for a good story that is often retold to our guests. That Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford enjoyed Fettuccini Alfredo on their Roman honeymoon in 1927, and presented Alfredo with an inscribed gold serving fork and spoon set upon leaving is another wonderful story. These stories add so much to the dining experience. It’s invaluable.
3. Some Italian dining enthusiasts have been known as Alfredo purists; is there some truth to that, especially when it comes to “other” so-called Alfredo recipes?
Many dining enthusiasts do seem to really enjoy the real thing that we serve and with such an amazing story to back up this authentic, original recipe they often return for more. We have had guests from as far as Australia and Russia come back just to have this dish when they are in New York; we have noticed a trend with new customers coming in that our global guests have highly recommended that they must visit Alfredo 100. Our dish is often imitated but never replicated.
4. The menu at Alfredo 100 features a blend of traditional Italian and Nouveau Cuisines. How do you balance rich Italian traditions with today’s demand for healthy fare?
Italian food in general is famous for being a healthy cuisine. The secret of its unique approach to healthy eating is the freshness of the products and the attempt to not make the dishes too elaborate. What is more Italian than Insalata Caprese? And how many ingredients are in there? Very few. They just have to be fresh…and must be originally Italian, like real mozzarella di bufala.
5. What are some of the healthy and light recipes featured at Alfredo 100?
Pasta all’ arrabbiata is very simple and light, linguine with clams also, and spaghetti with lobster. And let me tell you something: pasta is good for the health. Our body needs carbs during the daytime – this is why it’s better to eat pasta for lunch. Pasta is good in moderation and especially for lunch, and it’s good for the body.
6. What are your most popular pasta dishes and why do you think they’re so highly regarded?
Fettuccini Alfredo obviously, but please don’t add any chicken nor seafood – that dish is perfect without additions. More importantly, Italians don’t put steaks on their pastas and do not put cheese and seafood together.
7. What kinds of appetizers and desserts do you recommend to complement a pasta dish for a truly Italian meal?
It really depends on the pasta dish. But I would say a nice burrata with grilled vegetables, spaghetti al filetto di pomodoro, and a tiramisu are a perfect trio for a truly Italian meal.
8. Executive Chef, James Henderson, is a New Yorker. How has he developed a menu that is faithful to the roots of Italian cuisine while appealing to the locals?
Just knowing New Yorker’s tastes. It’s a true luck that he’s from here or I’m sure we would have failed more than once. For example, we found out anchovies are not so loved by most Americans and this is such a shame! One traditional dish from Italy is a cream of anchovies served hot in which people can dip any kind of raw and cooked vegetables. We were so excited and planned to serve it to the New Yorkers but then Chef explained this American distaste for anchovies. He has been in the restaurant business since the age of 16 and understands local tastes.
9. Managing Partner, Ilaria Coletto, brings a different perspective to Alfredo 100. How has she influenced the Alfredo brand?
Managing Partner Ilaria Coletto brings style, creativity, and beauty and since she was born and bred in the small town of Biella in the Piedmont region of Italy, a good dose of “Italianism” to the restaurant. As a young girl she spent most afternoons with her grandmother where she was taught to cook and appreciate good food, resulting in her passion for Italian cuisine. At just 30 years old she is regarded as one of those successful new comers to the New York restaurant scene!
10. Ok, so tell us about the Al Hirschfeld connection.
The famous Al Hirschfeld came to the opening of the original NY restaurant in 1977 and drew a great caricature of Alfredo DeLelio II. It was wonderful and we incorporated it into our logo. Years later when I opened the second Alfredo Restaurant in NY, I decided to work with the Feiden Gallery to incorporate Italian themed Hirschfeld’s in various sizes around the restaurant. A new piece was commissioned for the restaurant and he came to the opening. It has become an important design element in the restaurants. Customers, both children and adults, enjoy trying to find all three of the Nina’s (his daughter’s name) that are hidden in various drawings that adorn the walls of Alfredo 100.
11. Your father was always looking for a way to innovate; using technology in the kitchen, seeking new marketing concepts. What’s up next for you and The Original Fettuccini Alfredo?
I am working on a new project that will be to bring the original Alfredo sauce, along with other sauces, to the public in specialty stores and markets. This will help to promote the restaurant and its history.
About Russell Bellanca:
Born to an American mother and Roman father, it was in Russell Bellanca’s DNA to appreciate fine food and the culinary techniques that support it. At age 24, Bellanca followed in his father’s footsteps and took over the two restaurants Guido Bellanca had previously opened, Alfredo’s in New York City (1985) and Alfredo’s at Disney World’s EPCOT (1995). Under his management, both locations flourished and received numerous accolades, from inclusion in various restaurant guides and websites to being considered one of the most successful restaurants at EPCOT. In 2001, Bellanca opened Alfredo of Rome in Rockefeller Center, receiving a multitude of high ratings from New York Magazine to the Michelin and Zagat guides. In 2012, Italy’s National Institute of Tourism and the Italian-American Chamber of Commerce presented the restaurant with the prestigious Ospitalità Italiana, or Authentic Italian Table Award, which recognizes exceedingly authentic Italian restaurants and institutions worldwide, much of which is credited to Bellanca’s hard work.
As the President of Alfredo International and with over 35 years of experience in the restaurant industry, Russell Bellanca has worked in every facet of hospitality, from the kitchen to the bar to upper management, and has even opened three large restaurants, including Trattoria Cinque in 2008, plus several fast-casual concepts. His latest venture, with partner Ilaria Coletto, was the relocation and transformation of Alfredo of Rome to Alfredo 100 in 2014, honoring the 100-year anniversary of the original Roman location. The new restaurant exudes a retro-modern feel and offers an approachable authentic menu, while also introducing various lesser-known dishes (like the calves brains of his childhood), something that Bellanaca is very proud of.