The wines themselves have the same sense of being crafted to feel like heirlooms. "A glass of real Barolo, the first time you have it, it’s hard to understand," he explains. "It’s rude, it’s rough, it’s controversial. But sip by sip, it conquers you. It requires time to understand it, but when you do, you can’t live without it. That’s the kind of Barolo I try to make."
Earlier in the week, we’d eaten a traditional piemontese dinner cooked by Boffa’s wife, Nicoletta, at their summerhouse in Treiso, a few miles away. Now, with lunchtime approaching, he takes me upstairs to a terrace off the living quarters, where his mother still resides. A red-and-white-checked tablecloth is spread over a table. We open bottles of Pio Cesare and eat preserved tuna, homemade bread, spaghetti with tomatoes from the garden, and peaches soaked in Barolo—all made by his mother, who is in her eighties. We gaze out over the buildings of Alba.
"I have been eating lunch and dinner here with my grandfather and my father for 51 years," he says. "The same view. The same table. The same food." His manner is brusque, but I see that his eyes are moist. He gestures toward the hills, which glint in the sunshine. "You can see why we like to keep things the same."
I spend the next night with Rivetti at La Ciau del Tornavento, in Treiso. Perhaps the best restaurant in the area, it can’t be more than a half-mile from Boffa’s summerhouse. As I revel in chef Maurilio Garola’s wry take on Piedmontese cuisine, I can’t help thinking about the home-cooked meal Boffa is doubtless eating at the same moment.
Nicoletta Boffa’s dishes aren’t updated versions of anything, just traditional recipes served with the utmost sincerity. They aren’t as exciting as what Garola creates at Tornavento, just as her husband’s Barolos and Barbarescos don’t thrill my palate quite as much as Rivetti’s versions of those wines, yet I understand that it is vitally important that Nicoletta’s food, like the Pio Cesare wines, continues to exist in its current form. If Rivetti and his cadre were necessary to help pull Piedmont into the present day, Boffa is there to ensure that it doesn’t get pulled too far. After a week spent between one winemaker and the other, I have come to perceive them as the twin halves of today’s Piedmontese culture. One looks ahead, the other behind.
Except that this isn’t exactly true. For my last dinner in the area, I meet Boffa in Rivoli, outside Turin. He has invited me to Combal.Zero, an avant-garde restaurant within a museum of contemporary art, where our meal is easily as surreal as any of the paintings hanging in the galleries. Spanish ham and frozen melon are presented in a hollowed-out book. A fish course arrives in a faux fossil, and we’re asked to hammer away at the clay around it. Foie gras is sucked out of a hole in a balloon.
Boffa loves every course. It is like taking Gore Vidal to see the Three Stooges and watching him double over in hysterics. Flabbergasted, I ask Boffa how he can reconcile his fervor for the traditional, for that which exists without irony, with the most studiously ironic meal I have ever eaten. "This is provocative," he replies. "You go to traditional restaurants in La Morra, you have traditional dishes. You come here, you start talking."
At that moment, a bottle of his Dolcetto arrives at the table. It is a lighter, simpler wine than Barolo or Barbaresco, made from a different grape—an everyday beverage for the Piedmontese that, if anything, symbolizes the region even more than those expensive, exalted wines do. He tastes it and sighs with contentment. I tell Boffa that it is absolutely the last wine I would have ever imagined ordering at a place like this, and he looks at me with an expression—a mixture of defiance and pity—that seems to embody the whole of piemontese culture.
"I’m from Piemonte, what can I tell you?" he says, turning his palms toward the sky. "I love what I love."
Bruce Schoenfeld is a Travel + Leisure contributing editor.