One of the greatest things about living in Tucson—and being an adventurous eater—is that you are always on the lookout for the hidden food gold mines.
It's easy to follow the main drags of retail and restaurants, but when you uncover a place way off the main streets, it is as if you have found something you can call your own.
For me, Roma Imports has always been that special place, resting in a nook on Vine Street just south of Kino Highway, the full-service deli and market sits among offices and warehouse, its large Italian flag waving high above the deli. The exterior makes it seems like the business itself is compact when in fact it is much longer than it is wide. The deli counter to your right begins almost at the doorway and runs several yards, brimming with cured meats, marinated vegetables, fresh baguettes and a selection of hard and soft cheeses, most of which are imported from Naples and Milan. On the left, there is the impressive sweep of freezers, each one packed with house-made items such as sauces, pizzas, pasta dishes, sausages and desserts.
If this holiday season you find yourself in a bind as far as what to cook for dinner when shopping and visiting family, Roma Imports is an out-of-the-way haven and owner Lilian Speith is your benefactress.
Originally born in India, Lilian's family immigrated to Israel when she was a teenager. Years later, she married a German man and together they traveled across Europe before eventually settling in Arizona, after some stops in Washington and Colorado. Lilian bought Roma Imports over a decade ago from a Sicilian family who did wholesale products for Italian restaurants, but when she took over, the business began to change.
The influences from her upbringing, paired with extensive traveling, mixed with the Italian foundation Roma was built upon Lilian's cooking slowly became the focal point and reason for customers passing through the front door. Before long the wholesale aspect was all but forgotten and the delicious enterprise we now savor is the Roma Imports that stands today.
The cozy eating area in the back, with the look and feel of an age-old trattoria, invites you to sit and chow on one of their signature sandwiches, such as the Ultimate Roma, which is served cold and packed with salami, mortadella, capicola and finished with a spicy giardiniera, mozzarella and roasted peppers, or the Roma Stallion that comes equipped with piping hot slow-cooked pork shoulder marinated in a dry Italian white wine and regional herbs. Both sandwiches are extremely generous and will run you around $7 to $8. They also serve an impressive selection of salads, pasta dishes and savory hand-crafted soups, which will help us Tucsonans deal with the winter chill as temperatures dip into the low '60s.
Outside of the deli and restaurant offerings, Roma Imports host a communal feast several times a year. This is something so special and popular that you need to make arrangements well in advance. Lilian, along with her chef Veronica Soto, cook up to 15 different dishes, served over three courses, which would make any old country Italian grandmother proud if not slightly jealous. The next feast is tentatively set for Jan. 28, 2017, so you need to call them now to see if you can in because seats go fast. When you are served up Milanese veal chops, sausage and asparagus lasagna, goat cheese turnovers with figs, seared tuna accompanied with a horseradish marinara crostini and something called "chocolate salami" (which are some items from the Spring Feast menu of this year) you can see why reservations are required.
Roma Imports also does catering, so you can let them feed the kids and relatives while you wrap presents and dip into your Uncle's "special nog." This season a Mediterranean platter has been introduced; an abundant selection of homemade hummus, char-grilled feta stuffed peppers, fried eggplant, marinated olives and pepperoncini, alongside their tried and true Antipasti plate which includes a variety of aged meats, house balsamic dressing and bakery fresh bread, both will keep folks happy and you a bit less stressed.
Here is a little secret, a reason to get here before the year is out: Roma Imports just, well, imported a rare Iberian ham called "Pata Negra," or black hoofed pig, a delicacy in Spain as the animal can only be found in oak forests of the peninsula and cannot be purchased anywhere else in southern Arizona. It is salty, nutty and extremely delicious. Yet another hidden treasure that needs to be discovered.