Editor’s note: This is another in the Star’s series on ethnic markets in Tucson.
We might be 6,000 miles from Italy, but with Roma Imports around the corner, the distance doesn’t feel as far.
What originally started as a wholesale marketplace has blossomed into a grocery store, catering business, deli, and restaurant.
Owner Lilian Spieth was born in Calcutta and moved to Israel as a teenager. While on vacation in Scotland, Spieth met her now-husband and began traveling around the globe.
“Living in so many places exposed me to new cultures and kitchens,” Spieth says. “Every day, I was cooking something new.”
“Lilian is a wonderful cook,” Koreen Johannessen, who calls herself “Roma’s Biggest Fan,” says. “If you’re lucky enough to get invited to Lilian’s home, there are always so many entrees. She cooks until she runs out of time.” Johannessen works in social media and advertising for Roma Imports.
When Spieth moved to the United States, she knew she wanted to work with food — she just didn’t know how.
Roma Imports opened its doors in 1984, and Spieth bought the business in 1999.
“When I took over, the business was mainly wholesale,” Spieth says, explaining the store’s hidden location. “We sold Italian products to restaurants two to three times a day.”
Although Roma Imports still wholesales its homemade sausages, Spieth soon realized that cooking for her customers was more fun than shipping off boxes of tomatoes.
“We tried to replicate the Little Italy’s that are on the East and West coasts,” she says. “We felt there wasn’t anything like that in Tucson.”
Gradually, Roma Imports started to offer Italian groceries. Now, the shelves are “bursting at the seams,” Spieth says.
A number of tall shelves are scattered throughout the store, all stocked high with colorful cans of crushed San Marzano tomatoes, pastas galore, capers in every size, and glass bottles of olive oils and vinegars.
“We try to sell items that one does not find in a regular grocery store,” she says. “Why would anyone come here for milk and cottage cheese if they could just go to a regular grocery store?”
Spieth says that Roma Imports only carries specialty items — things you can’t find anywhere else.
A year and a half after taking over the business, Spieth launched a sandwich menu.
“I remember I said, ‘If I can sell 20 sandwiches a day, I’ll be very happy,’” she says.
The sandwich menu had so much success that Spieth created a seating area, complete with red and white checkered tablecloths. She eventually expanded the menu from five to 15 sandwiches, in addition to salads, soups and pasta dishes.
But the real stars of Roma Imports are the 17 giant freezers that line the wall. Among the many items jam-packed in the freezers are pasta sauces, olives, meatballs, cheeses, and a large variety of scratch-made dinners.
The meals, which range from shepherd’s pie to lasagna to gluten-free pepperoni pizza, come fully prepared. All you have to do is pop it in your oven.
“If you have a sick friend and you want to load up their freezer, you come here,” Johannessen says.
Johannessen and Spieth mention that people are sometimes embarrassed to admit to their party guests that the food came from Roma Imports, instead of their own two hands.
“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” Johannessen says. “Just throw a little flour on your face and come out with a tray of cannoli,” she laughs.
Each of the meals are made from scratch using quality ingredients — no additives and no preservatives. The sauce doesn’t have sugar, and the rosemary and basil come straight out of Spieth’s garden.
“We don’t carry a lot of commercial items because we cook them ourselves,” Spieth says. “It’s a good feeling to give customers quality.”
In addition to Italian food, Spieth also likes to throw in a few other cultural surprises.
“Our repertoire is so much more than Italian,” she says. “I like to introduce people to other foods, in addition to Italian.”
And although Roma Imports makes 50 to 75 lasagnas daily in the winter, Spieth doesn’t have a favorite dish.
“There’s a lot of good stuff to make,” she says. “If I were to pick one, I’d have a problem.”