When Lilian Spieth bought Roma Imports in 1999, she had never run a business or worked in a restaurant. But her kids were in college and she was bored.
“I was a little bit intimidated at starting something from scratch,” she says, but she figured she could take an existing business and build on it. “Food had always been my passion.”
Eighteen years later, Roma Imports, located at 627 S. Vine Ave., is thriving. Over the years, Spieth has shifted the focus from wholesale to mostly retail sales, with a wide array of prepared foods as well as imported groceries.
Although the restaurant and catering menus emphasize Italian dishes such as eggplant parmesan and tiramisu, as you’d expect from a place with “Roma” in the name, Spieth has added to the “world food” sections of her refrigerated and frozen meals, whipping up everything from French coq au vin to Greek moussaka to Hungarian goulash.
Of Iraqi-Jewish descent, Spieth was born in Calcutta, where she lived until she was 14, surrounded by the colors and spices of India. Her mother learned to cook kosher versions of the local cuisine, substituting coconut milk for cream in her curries. “I learned all those recipes from her,” she says, but Spieth also ate Indian street food and meals cooked by neighbors who were not Jewish.
Today, in her store, Spieth offers several Indian meals, including saag paneer, a dish that combines spinach and Indian cheese, plus lamb and chicken curries.
From Calcutta her family moved to Hadera, Israel, a part of her journey that she says is reflected in the store’s Mediterranean platter, which includes hummus, pita bread and olives.
She also caters bar mitzvahs, and says that her baba ganoush, made with roasted eggplant mixed with mayonnaise rather than tahini, is the true Israeli version of the dish.
Spieth was working in the foreign exchange department of an Israeli bank when she went on a backpacking tour of Europe with a girlfriend. She met her husband, who is German, in Scotland and they were married in Plymouth, England. The family lived in Denmark and Germany as well as Washington and Colorado before moving to Tucson. Look for sauerbraten and other German specialties in her world food section, along with English shepherd’s pie, one of her bestsellers.
Speith still supplies a few loyal restaurant clients with wholesale items. The dry goods section of the store continues to offer a large selection of Italian pastas, tomatoes including San Marzanos – the certified kind, she says — olive oils, Italian cookies and other desserts, and specialty items such as marinated anchovies that can still be hard to find elsewhere.
Knowing she can’t compete with the shelf space available in supermarkets, “really I just try to keep the items that you would come down for,” she says.
For more information, visit romaimports.com.