If you’re headed south on Campbell and pass the bronze Father Kino statue, you’ve gone too far.
In fact, even if you do turn on to the correct street, Roma Imports is hard to find without a map, smartphone, or detailed directions. It's all part of the charm.
Its history does diversity proud. Owner Lilian Spieth is a descendent of an Iraqi Jewish family, married to a German man, but born in Calcutta, India. For the better part of her teenage years she lived in Israel, then hung out for 18 years in Germany with her husband.
By 1999, back in the States and living in Tucson, Spieth was yearning to get into the food business, even though she knew nothing about it. After a broker delivered her to Roma Imports, she saw her future in its potential.
“From day one," Spieth said, "I knew I could do this.”
The rest is gorgeous food history. While Roma’s original Sicilian owners specialized in wholesaling to restaurants - the reason for the offbeat location - Spieth set to cooking real food, with excellent ingredients. Once she rolled out her signature Italian classics, however customers pushed for more.
"People would ask, 'why not cook this or that?'" Spieth said. “The more I cooked, the more people liked it.”
Little by little, one lasagna grew into more lasagna. Currently, Roma's cold case contains spicy sausage, regular sausage, chicken, 4-cheese, sausage-spinach-mushroom, vegetarian, beef, chicken in a white garlic cream sauce, an organic beef with whole wheat noodles, and even a microwavable version. And, that's just the lasagna. All come bathed in a smorgasbord of Italian cheeses and homemade sauces.
Part in house deli, part sit-down restaurant, Roma sells a large assortment of top-notch authentic Italian take-out. The entire north wall is made up of stainless banks of refrigerators and freezers, all at glacial temps, stocking everything from house made lasagna, manicotti, cannelloni, eggplant, raviolis, curries, soups, sauces, sausage, cheeses, chicken meatballs, pizzas, cannoli (to die for), cookies, gelato, and on and on.
“When you look in that section, you will see my background." Spieth says. "You will see the Indian, you will see the Mediterranean, you will see the Israeli, the Greek, and you will see the German, which comes from my husband’s side.”
Another wall of food is dedicated to imported dry goods: unique pastas, canned tomatoes, tuna, olive oils, candies, vinegars, and roasted peppers. Every nook has a stainless rack with hard to find offerings.
Roma features a billboard of rotating daily specials with sandwiches offering cool twists on the usual suspects. The Roma Signature, a slow roasted, tender pork shoulder marinated in beer and mustard, and served on a sub blanketed with crunchy slaw, is a nod to Spieth’s German influences.
Then there’s the more classic Milano Meatball Magic, beef meatballs smothered in marinara beneath a roof of melted Provolone. Today, Spieth and her Roma family churn out close to 800 meatballs a week.
Spieth adds, “We make our sausage from scratch every two weeks.” My friend, from Oregon, so fell in love with their cheese sausage that she drove 200 miles to fill a cooler of it to give her mom on Mother’s Day.
Another day I notice a man rooting through the Roma freezers, grabbing brats and sausage and pumpkin ravioli, stocking his cooler full of goodies for his wife. He made the drive from Chandler, Arizona.
For those that prefer to make their own sandwich combos, Roma’s meat deli overflows with Wine Cured Salami, Cappocolla, Spanish Serrano Ham, Genoa Salami, Prosciutto di Parma, Bresaola, and much more.
Chances are, if it’s sold in a pork store somewhere in Jersey, it’s also at Roma Imports. And you can make an easy meal just out of the appetizers. From Zucchini Eggplant Fritters, to luscious colorful olives, to figs stuffed with Gorgonzola, it's all on display and part of Roma’s food tour of Italy.
The entire backroom is lined with long tables with the familiar red and white checked tablecloths synonymous with old-fashion Italian restaurants. Everything is family style, come in, sit down, grab some lunch and maybe the next stranger will become your friend. Then, before you leave, you can order take-out for dinner.
And even with all the traditional Italian and international fare - cooked without fillers or preservatives - Spieth says she’s continually reinventing the mix, from scratch spaetzle, pumpkin Alfredo sauce, or her best selling shepherd’s pie.
Keeping current with the gluten-free wave, Roma has plenty for the wheat free palate: beef lasagna, chicken cacciatore, mac and cheese, and baked ziti. And no vegan will ever go hungry here – stuffed vegan grape leaves, and several meatless tomato sauces are a vegan’s close friend.
In the fall and winter, when the weather has finally chilled out, Roma does a brisk catering business as well as serving up reserved monthly feasts. They do a German variety around Oktoberfest, (Sauerbraten Meatballs, German Potato Salad, Pork Schnitzels, Swabian Ravioli) and a Sicilian feast (pasta alla Norma with homemade Saffron pasta, lamb in wine & Anchovy Sauce et al).
Give a call for more information and reservations. And if anyone’s out of town and would like to order long distance, Spieth will try and accommodate. (Cost of shipping depends on what you order and how it travels).
Roma Imports is located at 627 S. Vine Avenue, Tucson, AZ. 85719. For more information, including hours and menu, visit them on the web at romaimports.com.