Introducing Starch Madness: The Pasta Shape Bracke…

Overhead of mixed dried pasta shapes.

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik and Marx-Mulvihill Family]

Right now, I miss sports. I miss waking up early on the weekends to watch Roma games and the Premier League. I miss watching the MVP race heat up between Giannis and LeBron as the NBA playoffs draw (or drew) closer this spring. I miss the knockout-stage drama of the Champions League (“Corner taken quickly… Origi!!”). I don’t watch much baseball anymore. (Who has the time? Well, I guess we all do right now, and that really stings.) But I miss chatting with my father about his excitement for the upcoming season outlook of his beloved Dodgers with spring training in full swing, and talking through the insanity of the Mookie Betts trade. I miss the anticipation for March Madness, with Selection Sunday and brackets to be filled out, and the electricity of the first whirlwind days of the NCAA tournament, flipping through eight channels to catch snippets of opening round games.

But what I miss more than anything about sports is the sense of community, belonging, and teamwork that they provide for us. Sports and food have always been my way of fitting in when I’ve felt the most alone, depressed, anxious, and scared. It’s really throwing me off not having that escape right now.

Sasha Marx playing soccer in Rome as a child.

I was five when my family moved to Rome, and my mom tells me that I had a pretty rough go of it at first, struggling to cope with our new surroundings. One of my father’s new colleagues suggested enrolling me in a scuola di calcio, a soccer school (what would be described as club soccer here in the States), to help integrate me into the social fabric of Italy, and maybe I’d pick up some conversational Italian at the same time. So my parents signed me up for soccer school in Testaccio, the historic meatpacking district of Rome. I fell in love with soccer, and Rome.

That’s how I learned Italian, and why I speak the language with a heavy Roman accent and dialect. When I wasn’t at practice, I was playing soccer all afternoon in our neighborhood piazza. At school, I played soccer at recess and wolfed down lunch as fast as possible so I could go play before classes started again. I drove my mother crazy playing inside our apartment, to the point that she had to get me a foam ball to keep me from inducing her constant migraines and breaking all the pottery. When we went on family vacations, I always brought a ball with me in case I came across a group of kids to play with.

I persuaded my parents to get AS Roma (the only professional team in the capital worth supporting; Lazio fans don’t @ me) season tickets, and we would ride the 280 bus, snaking along the Tiber, out to the Stadio Olimpico every other week for home games. When Roma played away from home, I would run over to the pub around the corner that had satellite TV to watch. The bartenders took a liking to this little blond American kid with a thick Roman accent who loved Francesco Totti more than anything, and started reserving me a seat, setting me up with a Coke and a big order of patatine fritte when I sidled up to the bar and hopped on my regular stool.

Sasha Marx with a soccer ball as a child.

When I was starting high school, my parents made the decision to move back to the States. Once again, I really struggled to adjust. Being 14 and not knowing anyone at a new 2,000-student school was not fun. I was depressed and cried myself to sleep many nights. But at least I had sports. I played on the soccer team, and when on the pitch, my anxiety would melt away.

Sports were my in for making friends. I would spend nights and weekends watching and studying American football and basketball, determined to learn the rules of the game, the teams and players that mattered, so I could join in on the conversation at school. I spent hours in my cousin’s frozen driveway across the street from my new house, hoisting jumpers on her hoop in the Boston winter, determined to have a passable shot by the time it was warm enough out to play pickup ball on the courts nearby. I still missed Italy terribly and eventually was able to return to Rome on my own to finish high school. But sports got me through the uncertainty and unease of the two years I spent in the States.

The shared common goals and teamwork required in team sports are also what drew me to professional cooking. When I think about what I miss most about restaurant cooking, it’s the high of being in a kitchen that’s really humming, with a team of cooks who are all in sync. There comes a point when you reach a familiarity with your team and the rhythm of service that you don’t need to speak, other than to expedite and call back ticket orders and allergy notifications.

You know where everyone is going to be and where they’ll move to next. You can jump on the line to help a cook out on a “big pick” when they are getting slammed with orders, or line up and plate a big wave of dishes at the pass together, performing the silent dance as you take turns adding components to each plate (I’ll lay down the sauce while you slice and fleur-de-sel the steaks, get the steak on pass trays and I’ll plate the beef, you follow with the pickled kohlrabi slices to cover, I’ll finish with the green peppercorn vinaigrette). It’s the closest thing I’ve ever found to that trust and feel for where a teammate is going to be on the field or court, and delivering them the perfect pass. There’s no better feeling.

Overhead of stirring a skillet of pasta with beans and greens.

And now both of those worlds have come to a halt. It’s scary, unsettling. The restaurant industry is in dire straits; all of my industry friends are suddenly unemployed or fighting to keep their businesses from going belly-up. There’s no certainty about when restaurants will come back, or, for some, if they will at all. Sports will return, but man, we could really use them right now—for cathartic release, a couple hours of distraction, an instant of “did you just see that??” awe, shared among friends and strangers.

We could use a moment like the David Ortiz speech at Fenway in the wake of the Boston marathon bombing (which was the last time I had to shelter in place, as a cook working less than a mile from the race finish line). Or a Champions League overtime thriller to watch (at least we got that bonkers Liverpool-Atlético Madrid away leg before the competition was shut down last week). Or even just a tournament bracket to pore over, picking potential Cinderellas and dark-horse upsets, conferring with friends and coworkers over their predictions.

The real March Madness tournament was cancelled the other week due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. But maybe we can help fill a tiny bit of that void, ever so slightly, with Starch Madness, a bracket-style tournament that pits 64 dried pasta shapes against each other as they duke it out for a spot in the Final Forks, with one to be crowned champion.

Introducing Starch Madness

Originally, Starch Madness was meant to be a fun, lighthearted, and engaging pasta-centric companion activity to the Big Dance, for those of us who can’t get enough bracketology tournament excitement in March. Now, with no basketball tournament tipping off any time soon, and the anxieties and strain brought on by coronavirus and social distancing, Starch Madness will hopefully be the welcome distraction and breath of levity a lot of us could use right now (I know all of us at Serious Eats have really been looking forward to it over the very stressful and uncertain past couple of weeks). So, let’s dance! Here’s the deal with Starch Madness.

How the Bracket and Voting Works

Starch Madness Tournament Bracket

Like the NCAA tournament, the Starch Madness bracket is made up of 64 contestants, which are divided among four regions. Each region has 16 shapes, seeded one through 16, meaning there are four number-one seeds, four number-two seeds, and so on and so forth. I spent hours vetting the field, selecting 64 shapes of dried pasta that would make it into the tournament, and then determined the seeding for each shape (more on the criteria and logic for the seeding process in a bit).

If you’ve never watched March Madness or filled out a bracket before, here’s the drill. It’s a single-elimination tournament, win-or-go-home, kicking off with the strongest teams (or pasta shapes) facing the weakest opposition. The field is cut in half at every round of competition, leading to the “Elite Ate” and “Final Forks” (if you’re not a sports person, don’t worry about the puns, but trust me, they’re gold). Survive and advance is the name of the game, and the format allows for high drama, with the possibility for shocking upsets and unlikely Cinderella stories at every turn.

The kicker for Starch Madness is that you decide which pasta shapes advance in the tournament! The winner of each matchup will be determined by popular vote on Instagram, playing out as a running vote in the Stories on our Serious Eats (@seriouseats) account. Plus, if you leave a comment on our announcement post guessing the winner (and tag a friend), you’ll be entered for a $150 cash card. So make sure you follow us on the ‘Gram, and get voting!

Voting opens for Round One today, and we’re kicking off with the Gragnano region. The following three regions will have their Round One matchups over the next three days. Then we’ll give the shapes the weekend to rest up before moving into Round Two next week on March 30-31. Voting for subsequent rounds will move at a good clip, culminating with the Dried Pasta Shape Championship on April 10.

Not familiar with all of the shapes in the bracket and don’t want to make the wrong picks? Fear not! There will be accompanying photos for each shape in our Instagram voting matchups, and you can also consult our new pasta shape guide to get acquainted with all of the noodles competing for all the marbles in Starch Madness (plus, a few bonus shapes that didn’t make the cut—better luck next year rocchetti). We’ve also made a PDF of the entire bracket, so you can print and fill the whole thing out in advance. Want to know more about how the seedings were determined? Well, let me explain.

How the Seedings Were Determined

Sasha Marx standing in front of a pile of pasta products while frowning at a box of angel hair

Let’s get down to brass (or bronze-die?) tacks for how I determined qualifying pasta shapes and seedings for Starch Madness.

  • Dried Semolina Pasta Only: Before anyone starts asking “Where the ravs and fettuccine at?,” this tournament is limited to dried pasta only, made with durum wheat semolina flour and water.* Egg-based pastas, fresh or dried, are ineligible to compete in this year’s competition. There is a common misconception in the United States that fresh pasta is inherently superior to dried, and that needs to end right now. They are different and great in their own ways and cannot be casually substituted for one another. We need to show dried pasta respect. All of the dried pasta shapes that made the cut for Starch Madness are available for retail purchase in the United States. I know this for certain because I purchased every single one of them.

    In the case of dried pasta shapes that are commonly used in the United States but really should be fresh, we included them but seeded them based on their quality as a dried product, not as their better fresh selves. For example: Dried lasagne sheets are a pale imitation of sheets made from fresh egg dough, so they are seeded pretty low despite the inarguable greatness of lasagna in general. Dried orecchiette, while not as perfectly toothsome as the fresh, handmade semolina-dough version, are still delicious and are seeded much higher. Dried trofie aren’t as good as fresh, but they’re pretty solid. However, they are much harder to find than orecchiette or other shapes, so they get knocked down in the seedings because of that. Which brings us to the next criteria.

  • Availability: More weight and higher seeding consideration was given to pasta shapes that are more widely available for purchase in the United States. As much as I love the mezze maniche from Pasta Mancini, they are very hard to find in shops and even online, so I had to knock them down to an eight-seed. I don’t think that linguine are in any way superior to mezze maniche (in fact, I think linguine are criminally overrated), but they are seeded much higher (receiving a coveted number-three seed) due to their ubiquity in supermarkets and their popularity with American home cooks.
  • Popularity/Name Recognition: No tournament bracket selection process is immune to the pressures of public opinion and media attention, and Starch Madness is no exception. Just as perennial basketball powerhouses like Duke can receive favorable treatment from the NCAA tournament selection committee compared to small-conference schools like Butler or Murray State, pasta shapes like elbow macaroni (a shape that I never encountered in all my time living in Italy) are seeded way higher than they should be based on actual performance. How is it possible that elbow macaroni gets so much attention when it can only be used appropriately for a couple of dishes (mac and cheese and deli-style pasta salad; again, I am just stating facts, don’t come at me)?
  • Versatility: Like elbow macaroni, pasta shapes that lack recipe versatility are docked for that in the seedings while shapes that can be used for a lot of different recipes are given a boost. The four number-one seeds (spaghetti, rigatoni, penne, and bucatini) are not only shapes that can be easily found in supermarkets, but they can all be used for a wide variety of popular pasta dishes. And on top of that, they are all delicious.
  • Deliciousness: Finally, and probably most importantly, seedings were determined by platonic pasta ideals of al dente deliciousness, according to me, the Bracket Master. Why should you trust me? Well, I have nearly three decades of pasta-eating experience, including 12 years in which I ate pasta at least once a day (the time I spent living in Italy). I have been cooking pasta for two decades, first as an avid amateur before going pro. My love of pasta got me into college (I wrote my general application college essay on my favorite childhood restaurant for amatriciana in Rome). As I am currently writing this, I have a giant cardboard box filled with a dozen bags of pasta that arrived at my apartment yesterday from Gustiamo. I care deeply about pasta. So please don’t break my heart by voting for wagon wheels over bucatini in Round One. I don’t know if I can survive that level of anguish in the age of social distancing.

*Does a store near you sell dried fettuccine? Well, that’s just wrong.

Go Vote!

With all that in mind, head over to Instagram and vote for your favorite pasta shapes to make sure they make it through to the next round in the Big Al Dente! Print and fill out a bracket and send us a photo of it! I know I’ll be doing that. Debate the seedings and make your case for angel hair in the comments (anyone that can convince me that it’s a shape worth saving will get my undying, begrudging respect). This is a surreal time for all of us, but I hope that, in the absence of sports, Starch Madness and pasta can bring us all closer together while keeping a safe distance, even just for a chuckle and a rant or two. Forza e coraggio.

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