Starch Madness: Announcing the Wheat 16!

Separating the ground, bronze die-extruded wheat from the chaff in our Starch Madness tournament.

Photograph: Vicky Wasik Graphic: Maggie Lee

After pulse-pounding action in the first two rounds of Starch Madness, we've officially arrived at the Wheat 16. First and foremost, we would like to thank all of you who have been participating in Starch Madness—it brings us so much joy during these anxious times to see the high voter turnout rate, the pasta shape advocacy happening in comments sections, the messages we've received from starch stans, and photos and stories you've shared of filling out brackets with friends and family, even if you've had to gently remind them that they support the wrong shapes.

You all are the best, and we hope that Starch Madness will continue to bring everyone some laughs and elicit more impassioned defenses of shapes that you feel the voters have given short shrift. On that note, I know that I, personally, am struggling to always find the right tone in my work for these uncertain times. I'm not always going to get it right, and while I may drag wagon-wheel pasta fans, it's all love, especially if we're talking pasta! With that said, let's get back to the Madness.

Over the past week and a half, we have witnessed some stunning upsets—orecchiette falling to conchiglie in the second round is the shocker of the tournament so far—along with dominant displays from the four number-one seeds (spaghetti, penne rigate, rigatoni, and bucatini), which have all made quick work of their competition on their march toward the Final Forks.

Despite some feisty victories from double-digit-seed underdogs in the first round—including a heroic performance from gomiti, which emerged victorious in their all-elbow thriller against mac-and-cheese stalwart, elbow macaroni—the clock struck midnight for long-shot Cinderellas in round two. (Conchiglie, mentioned above, which was a seven-seed, is the lowest ranked shape left in the tournament.)

As with all knockout tournaments, the pressure and intensity mount for each matchup as we move through the tournament. After a number of blowout wins in round one, the scores in round two were much tighter and hotly contested and even included a 50-50 percentage draw that had to go down to individual vote-counting! So, let's look back at some of these highlights from the first two rounds and forward to what's yet to come.

Upsets of the Tournament So Far

Overhead of a large mix of dried pasta shapes.

Capricci Over Calamarata: Thirteen-seed capricci came into the tournament as a relative unknown (looking like a close cousin to Sicilian busiate, also a tightly wound spiral shape, which just missed out on placing in the tournament this year) and played with a nothing-to-lose fearlessness in their round-one dismantling of four-seed calamarata, which ended 67 to 33. Despite losing 54-46 in a hard-fought round-two matchup against tortiglioni, capricci did their fans proud and announced themselves as a shape to be reckoned with in the years to come.

Conchiglie Over Orecchiette: Orecchiette's second-round collapse against conchiglie left us Is hubris to blame for the lackluster performance? Orecchiette certainly strode into their second-round matchup full of confidence, after dispatching their round-one opponent, anellini, with ease (87 to 13, the second widest margin of victory so far in the tournament, surpassed only by rigatoni's opening round 93-to-seven waxing of tiny semi di melone). Whether it was an issue of overconfidence or just flat out not being good enough, orecchiette will have a lot of soul-searching to do over the coming months, as they look back at this lost season and what could have been.

As for conchiglie, wow. None of our pasta pundits had picked them to get this far in the tournament, and with a favorable matchup against eight-seed radiatori in the Wheat 16, there is no reason to pick against them dancing on to the Elite Ate! What a run for shells.

Gomiti Over Elbow Macaroni: In the round-one elbow standoff between gomiti and elbow macaroni, few of us at Serious Eats liked gomiti's chances against the macaroni-and-cheese juggernaut. Elbow macaroni are so intrinsically tied to one of the quintessential childhood comfort-food dishes in American cuisine that defeating them seemed an impossible task. But, like a hobbled Kirk Gibson homering off Dennis Eckersley in the first game of the 1988 World Series, gomiti made the impossible happen. Even though they, too, fell in the second round, gomiti's Goliath-slaying performance will live on in Starch Madness lore for years to come.

The Starchiest Storyline So Far: Fusilli Frenzy

One of the emerging trends of the tournament so far has been the strong overall showing by spiral-shaped pastas and particularly the fusilli family, with all three types of fusilli (standard, and both short and long fusilli bucati (more cylindrical spirals with a hole running through their centers, like bucatini) still in the running. With the three 'sillis all in different tournament regions, will we see a fusilli fest in the Final Forks? Even if they don't all keep dancing, with cavatappi, radiatori, and gemelli also all still in the hunt, the odds of some form of spiral pasta featuring in the late rounds of the tournament are very high.

The Top Seeds March On

So far, none of the top seeds have faltered in the tournament, but that's not to say they've all been as equally dominant in their early-round matchups. We were all surprised that spaghetti stumbled a little bit coming out of the gate, with a far-from-convincing 64-to-36 victory over dried manicotti, one of the most maligned shapes to get a Starch Madness bid. While that may seem like we're picking nits with a result that wasn't ever really in doubt, the other one-seeds all received over 75% of the vote in their first-round matchups. Was this just a case of knocking off some rust and big-stage jitters or a warning of troubles to come for spaghetti?

On the other side of the bracket, rigatoni has been flexing its ridges, with a steamrolling win over semi di melone in round one and a ruthlessly efficient victory against mezzanelli in round two. However, they'll face much stiffer competition in the Wheat 16, going up against Tony Soprano's favorite shape, ziti. Will rigatoni breeze past them as well? Or will their untested run hurt their chances of moving forward as the stakes get higher?

Along with bucatini and penne rigate, will all of the one-seeds keep dancing, unchallenged, all the way to the Final Forks? Well, only you can decide their fates! So go vote for the Wheat 16 today!

For those of you who need a refresher on the voting process for Starch Madness, please keep reading. We apologize in advance to our Instagram-averse readers, but it has proved to be the platform best-suited for this competition, with built-in polling features that make all of this doable for our small Serious Eats team of editors, developers, and visual designers, all of whom are working remotely during this time of social distancing. We appreciate your understanding. If you aren't the social media type, you can still participate in some capacity by printing and filling out a Starch Madness bracket! Send us a picture of your bracket, and we can feature it on The Blog.

How the Bracket and Voting Works

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. (Access Stories on Instagram by tapping the Serious Eats icon in the top left corner of our feed.)

Voting opens for the Wheat 16 today. 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 so you can 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) along with suggestions for saucing each of them.