Starch Madness Is Back and Better Than Ever

64 pasta sauces. 1 champion. You decide. The Big Al Dente is back.

Graphics: Zac Overman and Vicky Wasik Photographs: Sasha Marx

It's March. The weather is getting warmer, pollen and hope are in the air, and Starch Madness is back. It's been a decades long year since cavatappi were crowned champions, shocking the world as the winners of our inaugural pasta-themed knockout tournament.

At the close of the tournament, we asked you what you'd like to see for Starch Madness 2021. Among the many suggestions, this one from @badseed1980 stood out to me: "Next year, can we do pasta sauces/dishes? How would cacio e pepe fare against al limone? Would bolognese beat out amatriciana? Vongole versus con le sarde?" I loved the idea, and was determined to make it happen, nation-wide bucatini shortage be damned.

So over the past few months, we've been working hard to bring you this year's saucy edition of Starch Madness. That meant developing 20 new pasta recipes to fill out the field of 64 (because a March Madness-inspired bracket with anything less is weak-sauce), as well as re-testing and re-shooting a bunch of our existing pasta content. Along with the same voting setup as last year, you'll want to stay tuned to our Serious Eats Instagram account for a bunch of fun and exciting pasta content from some of our favorite pasta experts from Italy, Canada, and here in the States. The Big Al Dente is bigger and better this year, and we can't wait to kick things off. Need a refresher on the whole tournament? We've got you covered. Here's everything you need to know before the opening round of Starch Madness.

How the Bracket and Voting Works

Image of iPhone with Serious Eats Instagram account, indicating where to tap to vote on Stories.

Like the NCAA tournament, the Starch Madness bracket is made up of 64 contestants, which are divided among four regions. Each region has 16 established pasta dishes, 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 sauces that would make it into the tournament, and then determined the seeding for each one (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 sauces) facing the weakest opposition. The field is cut in half at every round of competition, leading to the "Elite Ate" and "Final Forks." 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. Access Stories by tapping the Serious Eats icon in the top left corner of our feed. So make sure you follow us on the 'Gram, and get voting!

Voting opens for Round One tomorrow, Tuesday, March 16th, and we're kicking off with the Fornello region. The remaining three regions will have their Round One matchups over the next three days. Then we'll give the pastas the weekend to rest up before moving into Round Two next week, on March 23-24. Voting for subsequent rounds will move at a good clip, culminating with the Pasta Championship on April 1 (no fooling when it comes to crowning a pasta champion, we promise).

Not familiar with all of the sauces in the bracket and don't want to make the wrong picks? Fear not! There will be accompanying photos and short descriptions for each contestant in our Instagram voting match-ups. Want to know more about how the seedings were determined? Well, let me explain.

How the Seedings and Regions Were Determined

overhead of pasta alla Genovese in a white bowl

Here is how seedings and bracket regions were determined for Starch Madness 2021.

Established Sauces/Pastas: Sauces are the focus of this year's tournament, and the selection committee made the decision to limit the field to established, canonical pastas from Italy and the United States. This choice was debated at length by our team, and we ultimately felt that the popular vote system used to determine winners would put worthy entries like Greek pastitsio or Somali suugo suqaar at an unfair disadvantage, while potentially further perpetuating false narratives of popular Western European cuisine superiority that run counter to our mission at Serious Eats.

We love the passionate fandom that was on full display in the comment sections on IG last year, and felt that this selection criteria was the best way to maintain a balance of spirited, but mostly respectful debate. We understand the pain of defeat, and feel it's important to provide a space for cathartic release, like when an exasperated @benjanyall asked if voting had "been hijacked by people who have never eaten pasta."

So what is an "established" sauce? Basically, a sauce that is part of a culinary tradition and the greater pasta zeitgeist. A sauce that is known, and not the creation of an individual* cook. That means that pastas like Daniel's seafood-stuffed shells or my spring onion orecchiette are ineligible, and must cede their bids to regional specialties like gnocchi alla bava and pasta alla zozzona. Small exceptions were made to accommodate variations on classic sauces, such as Sho's canned-clam spin on spaghetti alle vongole, and Daniel's vegan carbonara (which I may or may not have included for angry comment entertainment value alone). Even with 64 available spots and exacting selection guidelines, there are plenty of delicious and deserving sauces that just missed the cut (salsa Veneta, I'm sorry). I spent hours crunching advanced pasta analytics, poring over tomes like The Pasta Codex, and speaking with experts in the field, all in an effort to give the sauces, and the people, the Big Al Dente they deserve.

*Before anyone comes in with a "well actually" about Alfredo sauce being the unique creation of Alfredo di Lelio in Rome, thank you for pointing that out. I think it's fair to draw a parallel between Alfredo and the New Orleans classic, oysters Rockefeller, another iconic recipe created by an individual chef, Jules Alciatore. Both dishes entered the culinary canon, and in doing so, gained "established" status.

  • 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, fan-favorite pastas like spaghetti and meatballs are seeded much higher than Neapolitan pasta alla Genovese. It's harsh and unfair, but such is life.
  • Thematic Regions: You may notice that the bracket regions in this year's tournament are broken into general themes. The Fornello ("stove" or "burner") region consists of hearty sauces, ragùs, and baked pastas. Orto ("vegetable garden") features vegetable-driven entries. Pastas in the Costa ("coast") region are from, you guessed it, coastal areas of Italy (which is why Ligurian pesto alla Genovese is the top seed in this region rather than Orto), and/or heavily feature seafood ingredients. Finally, the Pascolo ("pasture") quadrant of the bracket is reserved for sauces that are rich with dairy, eggs, and cured pork products (it's the ethos of this region that got vegan carbonara in the backdoor through a play-in game). Breaking the regions up in this way ensures a couple of things: variety in the later rounds, and thrilling first-round matchups between natural rivals (see: battle of the beans with pasta e fagioli and pasta e ceci, cart-driver pasta showdown with Sicilian and Roman carrettiera facing off, and a cacio contest with plucky Neapolitan cas' e ova facing off against Roman giant cacio e pepe, and plenty more). It's going to get rowdy.

    Go Vote!

    a bowl of cacio e pepe

    With all that in mind, head over to Instagram, starting tomorrow, and vote for your favorite pasta sauces 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! Debate the seedings and make your case for macaroni salad in the comments (anyone that can convince Daniel that it's a pasta salad worth saving will get my undying respect). Starch Madness is here. Let's dance.