The Case of the Disappearing Bucatini

Bucatini pasta photographed by Amy Brothers/The Denver Post/Getty Images.

The year that was 2020 is officially over, and even though we already shared our picks for the year’s best investigative reporting, Rachel Handler’s absolutely delightful dive into the mysterious shortage of bucatini squeaked through last week and deserves a special, honorary slot on that list.

Handler’s Grub Street investigation into the disappearance of this thicker, luxurious noodle with a hole from shelves in New York and beyond is the end-of-year/new year read you didn’t know you needed.

Being educated noodle consumers, we knew that there was, more generally, a pasta shortage due to the pandemic, but we were still able to find spaghetti and penne and orecchiette — shapes which, again, insult me even in concept. The missing bucatini felt different. It was specific. Frightening. Why bucatini? Why now? Why us?

I’d like to go a step further and praise its innate bounciness and personality. If you boil bucatini for 50 percent of the time the box tells you to, cooking it perfectly al dente, you will experience a textural experience like nothing else you have encountered in your natural life. When cooked correctly, bucatini bites back. It is a responsive noodle. It is a self-aware noodle. In these times, when human social interaction carries with it the possible price of illness, bucatini offers an alternative: a social interaction with a pasta.

But the problem, I would learn, was not limited to New York. In the fall, I was speaking with my mother, a longtime resident of suburban Chicago, and, as it often does, the conversation quickly turned to pasta. “Rachel,” my mother said gravely. “I haven’t been able to find bucatini anywhere at home. Do you have any in New York?”

My heart stopped.

When Handler discovers the bucatini shortage is a much wider problem, she becomes determined to solve the mystery, first reaching out to De Cecco — her mother’s favorite bucatini brand — then going down a rabbit hole of email inquiries and phone calls with organizations like the FDA (which, as you can imagine, was a bit busy with vaccine- and pandemic-related issues), the National Pasta Association (yes, this indeed exists), and other noodle manufacturers, like Barilla. While digging deep into the history and inner workings of Big Pasta, Handler does find some answers, but she’s ultimately left with more questions.

But I sensed something more sinister was afoot, specifically regarding De Cecco–brand bucatini and its alleged skirmish with the FDA. Rosario expressed surprise at this, telling me he hadn’t heard anything about any kind of situazione with the FDA. “Maybe we’ll find some conspiracy, some worldwide thing,” he said, delighted. “That would be phenomenal. You would be remembered as the whistle-blower of the bucatini world crisis.” When I told him that De Cecco’s rep had been ignoring me, he gasped. “Maybe he’s been silenced!” he said. Rosario said he’d get back to me when he’d done his own internal investigating — and he did, mere moments later.

Carl didn’t say it, but I was pretty sure he thought about calling me “the Bernstein of Bucatini” and that my work will now help to fix the standards-of-identity issue that has long plagued our fair continents. I had confirmed that the bucatini shortage was real and understood that the bucatini shortage was a combination of factors: the pandemic’s pasta demand, how hard it is to make bucatini because of its hole, De Cecco’s strange and untimely barring from the U.S. border. But these victories felt lacking.

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