A visit to Roma Imports is like taking a trip around the world

"Kindness is important in this business."

Full disclosure. I am a big fan of Roma Imports.

I don’t visit the tiny shop often but when I do I walk out of there with boxes and bags of enough food to keep my freezer well stocked for months.

The thing is, I’m not alone when it comes to shopping at Roma. Just about everyone I know does the same thing.

Roma Imports (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Roma Imports (Credit: Jackie Tran)

During the Pandemic, Roma found the perfect pivot by setting up a phone ordering system. You called, you ordered, and a couple of hours later you picked up the order which was delivered to your car. This is still available, but I recommend an in-person visit; all the better to get a feel for this gem.

Located on South Vine, just around the corner or two from the Padre Kino statue on South Kino Parkway and East 15th Street, Roma Imports offers a world of food, although it might be better to say world of worldly food. And while the majority of the offerings are Italian, you can also find a variety of quiches, chicken paprikash, bratwurst, and much more.

On one of my recent visits, a man commented as he was checking out with a stack of food, “How did I never know this place was here?” Perhaps that’s because Roma is off the beaten path. Yet the brightly colored building decked out in the colors of the Italian flag is impossible to miss among its industrial neighbors.

Facade at Roma Imports (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Facade at Roma Imports (Credit: Jackie Tran)

The tiny parking that sits in front of the whitewashed building fills up pretty fast during certain hours of the day, fortunately, there is plenty of street parking.

There is really only one room here, but the back section, affectionately named “La Taverna,” is comprised of tables with red checkered tablecloths. At lunchtime, they fill up fast with people enjoying the many sandwiches and such found on the restaurant menu. The staff is happy that the restaurant part has reopened because they missed the lively chatter and activity during the pandemic closure.

Roma Imports (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Roma Imports (Credit: Jackie Tran)

The space could seem crowded with all the refrigerators, shelving, tables, and display cases but thanks to high ceilings and bright lighting Roma is cheerful and welcoming.

In its original iteration, Roma Imports was strictly a wholesale operation. But in 1999, Lilian Spieth who had a touch of empty nest syndrome bought the business.

“I had never run a business before. I had never even seen the inside of a commercial kitchen,” she said in a recent interview but added, “I’ve always had a passion for food. I knew if I did do something it would have to do with food. It came naturally to me.”

Spieth’s passion meant adding more refrigeration and counter space. “We kept pushing the wall back, pushing the wall back,” she said, adding a more worldly menu.

Roma Imports (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Roma Imports (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“The international food comes from my personal experience,” said Spieth.

That personal experience started in Calcutta where she was born and lived until she was fourteen. Her parents moved to Israel. Later in her travels, she met her husband, a mineralogist, in England. Then thanks to his job they lived in England, Turkey, Denmark, Germany, and parts of the Western United States, finally ending up here in Tucson. Each stop along the way added to Spieth’s culinary talents. That worldly mix is obvious in every inch of Roma.

The first thing you’ll notice is the tall racks to your left. Here the home cook, who is looking to make meals from scratch, will find a full bank of high-quality imported goods.

Grab a cart. You’re going to need one.

The choices of beautifully packaged options are expansive: shimmering bottles of a dozen or so types of olive oil, vinegar, and salad dressings; cans of imported tuna, sardines, and anchovies; jars of bright red peppers; cans of real Italian tomatoes; tubes of mustard and tomato paste; canned cannellini beans, garbanzo beans, and lupini beans; canned roasted chestnuts and all manner of foods not found elsewhere in Tucson.

Roma Imports (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Roma Imports (Credit: Jackie Tran)

And then there’s the pasta. Imported pasta from Italy includes everything from tiny orzo to thick ribbons of tagliatelle to big tubular rigatoni and everything in between. If you can’t find the pasta you’re looking for, check out the shelves in the back part of the store where more can be found. Several gluten-free pastas are available.

By now, having a full cart of food is not unusual but the dried goods section is only the beginning.

A long row of gleaming refrigerators/freezers line the wall all the way back to the restaurant area. Their glass fronts allow for viewing the myriad of foods inside. You’ll find everything from appetizers to desserts.

Roma Imports (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Roma Imports (Credit: Jackie Tran)

The list of cheeses is too long to mention but on any given day the options include chunks of tawny Parmesan (grated is also available), creamy ricotta (two kinds), homemade mozzarella, and Spanish manchego. Packages of worldly sausages are stacked high. A variety of olives can be found next to the tubs of Roma’s house-made spaghetti sauces — marinara, Bolognese, and vodka to name a few.

The prepared dinners are like a United Nations of offerings. Lasagnas, stuffed pasta, chicken cacciatore, and eggplant parmesan are just a small portion of the Italian dinners. Not feeling like Italian tonight? Then perhaps coq au vin tickles your fancy? Or Shepherd’s Pie? Cabbage rolls? Sang paneer? Thai chicken curry? You get the idea. And if you’re craving a pizza, you can choose one of several prepared pies or make your own using Roma’s dough and one of those sauces mentioned earlier.

Roma Imports (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Roma Imports (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Most of these are frozen and need to be defrosted, but fresh ones are also available. New dishes are often added, too.

“We test (meaning taste) everything until we are satisfied,” said Spieth.

Remi Chatterjee, Front of the House Manager, who has worked at Roma for eight years noted, “That’s the fun part.”

Across the aisle from the fridges are three deli cases that are reminiscent of those found in delis back east. One has a variety of bread. Another holds a wild assortment of noshes, perfect for assembling an antipasto platter for your next party or to have for an eclectic light lunch: dolmas, peppadews stuffed with goat cheese, a Caprese salad, chargrilled peppers, zucchini, and eggplant patties are a few examples.

Stuffed Peppers at Roma Imports (Credit: Laura Greenberg)

Stuffed Peppers at Roma Imports (Credit: Laura Greenberg)

The third case is the winner. In it are big rolls of salami, prosciutto, mortadella, pancetta, pastrami, and more all waiting to be expertly sliced to your specifications. While you’re waiting take a peek through the door to the kitchen crew fast at work. This is a from-scratch kitchen so they are always busy with something.

Desserts are plentiful at Roma from the imported cookies and candies to the rich cakes and lush cannoli.

Roma Imports (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Roma Imports (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Catering is also a big part of Roma’s success.

A word or two about the customer service at Roma: Timely, efficient, and best of all, full of smiles. The team here genuinely loves what they are doing.

The team of around a dozen people is cross-trained so that the back of the house can help the front of the house and vice versa. Chatterjee adds, “We all like to learn, expand our horizons. We all like to cook.”

The checkout system is so outstanding that even if you’ve bought tons of items, the team system gets it done quickly and correctly. They pay attention to everyone in line, interacting with the customers as they wait.

Roma Imports (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Roma Imports (Credit: Jackie Tran)

In spite of the fact that the options here are plentiful and varied, sometimes people can’t find items. Chatterjee encourages people to ask. She’ll take their name and phone number and call when the item arrives.

You don’t find that kind of service and attention to detail at many places these days, but that has a lot to do with Lilian Spieth.

“For me, what is important is that people know that when they come here we take care of them,” said Spieth. “The food is what we do, but the atmosphere is as important to us as the food. We take care of them. Kindness is important in this business. We train all of our employees to listen. That is as important as the food we sell. If we didn’t have that this place isn’t worth coming to.”

I guess Spieth just gave away the secret to Roma Imports’ success and all this time I thought it was the marinara sauce.

Roma Imports is located at 627 S. Vine Ave. For more information and hours of operation, call (520) 790-3173 or visit romaimports.com

Rita Connelly is the author of "Lost Restaurants of Tucson," "Historic Restaurants of Tucson," and "Arizona Chimichangas" published by The History Press.

X