French wine goes with French food. Sake goes with Japanese food. Tequila goes with Mexican food. These are the tried and true pairings — with historic, cultural and gastronomical proof that, yes, they work. But just because the flags match, that does not necessarily mean the end result is a fantastic pairing. Drinks can offer an even wider experience, beyond their culinary borders.

“Instead, we need to look at the profile of the actual food that we’re preparing,” says Danilo A. Di Nardo, vice president of the Lombardi Family Concepts restaurant group. On October 5, Lombardi Cucina Italiana in Frisco, Texas is doing just that by serving Italian cuisine with tequila in a special event dinner. “Wine and beer have dominated, but what we’ve seen in the past ten years, especially in the United States, is the discovery of pairing spirits with food,” says Di Nardo. “People are thinking outside of the box.”

People like Di Nardo and Josh Irving. Irving, co-founder of I&A Agave Spirits and a former collegiate golfer who made his way through the drinks business before launching the tequila brands, Soledad and Socorro.

“Making tequila is a delicate process that takes a very long time,” says Irving. Cooked agave is crushed, fermented and then distilled. Sounds simple, but it’s the variations are endless. The process and ensuring spirit change with different harvest times, yeast strains, distillation and maturation techniques. There are seemingly infinite variations, with each step along the way reliant on human hands and a deep understanding of the drink.

But tequila has long been relegated to Mexican cuisine. For Di Nardo, the guiding principles aren’t culinary nationalities, but rather, flavor profiles: fat, sweetness, acidity, and so on. “I think the U.S. is the driver in that mentality,” he says. The goal of the pairing, he explains, is to create a crescendo of flavor. But to do that, he adds, you must first understand the spirit and then think about what dish would complement it. For him and Irving, Italian food makes perfect sense — and the result will be, no doubt, an exciting culinary experience.

The timing could not be better. People in North Texas are more open to new culinary experiences than ever before, and tequila has taken off in a big way. According to Di Nardo, at the Lombardi restaurants, the tequila business grew 158% last year alone.

“Let’s go back in time to 2015,” says Irving. “And if you told anyone that the best Italian restaurant in Dallas is doing a tequila pairing dinner, nobody, they would have told you, you’re crazy. So the fact that this happening is just an evolution of what the world is bringing us from the culinary side.”

But Di Nardo and Lombardi Family Concepts didn’t want to do the tasting with any tequila brand, but Irving’s, which is based right here in North Texas, sourcing spirit from distilleries in Mexico. “We are doing this with local people — not a big company from Illinois,” he says. “We’re talking about two local guys that have taken a chance to follow their dream when down to understand how that works, and put everything they got into it to make it successful.”

Local is important to Lombardi Family Concepts. “We are a local company,” Di Nardo says, adding that the company has been in the greater Dallas area for 45 years. “We want to support local as we hoped a local would support us. And we want to put people around the table that will be able to touch and feel not only the product but interact with the guy that made it happen. It makes it so much better.”

“This tasting dinner is going go great — I know that for a fact,” says Di Nardo. Next up he says the Lombardi group is going to challenge themselves to do some French food — with tequila, of course.

Image courtesy of lombardi family concepts.

For more on The Art of Tequila: Soledad Pairing Dinner, check the event’s official page.

Brian Ashcraft

A native of North Texas, Brian Ashcraft previously lived in Japan for over two decades. He has authored six books, including the award-winning Japanese Whisky and The Japanese Sake Bible. Prior to joining...