Starch Madness: Cavatappi Crowned Champions

Closeup of uncooked cavatappi pasta.

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

After three weeks of thrilling competition, the inaugural Serious Eats Starch Madness tournament is officially in the books, and cavatappi are pasta champions! In the championship game, the little corkscrews-that-could slew spaghetti, the ultimate gluten Goliath, in a tight back-and-forth contest that ended 51 to 49. This final victory was a fitting exclamation point on an incredible run for cavatappi, which saw them take down three of the four number-one seeds in the tournament (bucatini, rigatoni, and spaghetti) on their way to winning the title of best dried pasta shape of 2020.*

*As decided by the voting public. The final vote tally was cavatappi with 5,600 and spaghetti with 5,341. I don't agree with these results, but I accept them. How do I honestly feel about cavatappi winning it all? My emotional state right now can be best summed up by the world-weary words of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell from the opening scene of No Country for Old Men: "I don't know what to make of [it]. I sure don't. The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure. It's not that I'm afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, 'Okay, I'll be part of this world.'"

When we last checked in on cavatappi, they were entering their Final Forks matchup against powerhouse rigatoni brimming with confidence, after taking down both bucatini and fusilli to emerge as the contender from the "group of death" Trafila region. Despite these impressive victories, Vegas bookmakers still weren't buying the cavatappi hype and had them as 10-point underdogs against rigatoni, the overwhelming favorite of the tournament. Never underestimate the motivational clout of a nobody-believes-in-us narrative—the macaroni miracle kids came out swinging and didn't let up as they clawed their way to a 51 to 49 victory, earning themselves a spot in the finals.

On the other side of the bracket, spaghetti and penne rigate faced off in a clash of heavyweight pasta powerhouses. In the run-up, there was plenty of grumbling among diehard noodle purists that this Final Forks matchup was a boring inevitability. It was more of a testament to the ubiquity and mainstream popularity of the two shapes involved rather than the result of earned greatness. Everyone loves to hate the Dukes and Kentuckys of the world, but no amount of armchair punditry can undo perennial success. Even as favorites, you still have to earn it (just ask bucatini), and spaghetti ended up doing just that, beating penne handily, 58 to 42.

Closeup of uncooked cavatappi pasta.

Whether it's a question of big-game jitters or oversized expectations, one-off championship games are usually underwhelming affairs, riddled with nervy, sloppy play, often ending in lopsided victories. The Starch Madness final, however, did not disappoint. One last time, cavatappi entered as the underdog. An hour after tipoff, the title contenders were locked in a dead-even tie, with neither shape able to take hold of the game.

Slowly, though, the tide began to turn in cavatappi's favor, as they answered every scoring run from spaghetti with one of their own, and thanks to lights-out shooting from beyond the arc, they gradually built a small lead over their opponent. Even with cavatappi taking the lead, spaghetti fans remained confident—Sho Spaeth called cavatappi supporters out as "delusionally optimistic fools," even as their spiral grip on the trophy tightened with the clock ticking down on spaghetti.

As desperation mounted, spaghetti began hoisting three-pointers every time down the court, but their shooters had gone limp-noodle cold. Cavatappi played with calm control down the stretch and knocked down their free throws to ice the game. When the final buzzer sounded, cavatappi's mac and cheese–crazed fans stormed the court, as incredulous as the rest of us that they had pulled off this historic win.

On behalf of the entire Serious Eats team, I extend my sincere congratulations to cavatappi, the Starch Madness champions of 2020. And a huge thank you to all of you that followed, voted, commented, and read our Starch Madness package over the past few weeks. This was special.

One parting question: What do you want Starch Madness to look like next year?