Taste of Italy

Roma Imports is more than worth the trip to its strange location

Roma Imports has to have one of the worst locations of any market/restaurant in Tucson.

To get there, you turn onto 15th Street from Kino Parkway. (Be sure to wave at Father Kino!) Before you get to Cox Communications, you take a left onto Cherry Avenue, followed by a quick right onto 16th Street, followed by a quick left onto Vine Avenue. There, in a nondescript building--an Italian flag billowing in the sky is the only thing that helps the place stand out--you'll find Roma Imports. Its neighbors include a roofing company and Magellan Traders, both featuring lots surrounded by high fences topped with barbed wire.

Who knew this neighborhood could be home to some of the best Italian goodies in town? The answer: A lot of people, apparently. Each time I've been there, Roma Imports has been bustling.

Garrett and I visited Roma Imports on a recent Saturday afternoon. We perused the Italian goodies in the market before ordering lunch. After looking over the menu--which is dominated by 17 sandwiches, accompanied by a handful of specials, a soup of the day, some salads, a case full of side dishes and the restaurant's "all-time favorite," spaghetti and meatballs--we ordered at the counter and took some seats in La Taverna.

La Taverna is the name the good folks at Roma gave to the back part of the building with dine-in seating. Fancy dining, this ain't: The bulk of the seating is at large, plastic white folding tables (with some more traditional wood-top tables thrown in); the eating utensils are plastic; a nearby refrigerator case's hum dominates the soundtrack. That's not to say La Taverna is lacking in charm; a stained-glass window, some candleholders and a few bits of framed art overlook a painted rust-orange silhouette of a village skyline. And the self-serve coffee is complimentary.

After a short wait, a friendly staffer brought us our food. Garrett got the ultimate Roma sandwich ($6.50), and I got the spaghetti and meatballs ($6.99) with a cup of the soup of the day, split pea with Italian sausage ($2.99). Garrett's sub-style sandwich was almost perfect in every way: The bread was tasty, with a crispy (but not tough) outside, and the contents--capocolla, Genoa salami, mortadella (a bologna-like Italian sausage), provolone cheese, hot giardiniera, roasted red peppers, lettuce, tomato and a vinaigrette--mixed and matched perfectly. The sandwich was not huge--he could actually get his mouth around it--but it was enough to be filling.

As he munched on the sandwich, I was relishing my spaghetti and meatballs, as well as the bread that came along with it. The marinara sauce was packed with onion and topped with a dusting of Parmesan and parsley. And the meatballs? They had a lot of flavor; they weren't the best I've had in Tucson, but they're toward the top of the list. My soup was the weakest part of our lunch, although it was by no means bad. It had a nice flavor (especially the bites that included a bit of sausage), but the liquid was a bit watery; it got better toward the bottom of the bowl, when more onion and carrot bits began to show up.

After we finished, we were happy. On the way out, we grabbed some ricotta cheesecake ($5.99 for two pieces) and a bag of spinach gorgonzola ravioli ($5.57). Later, at home, both were delights: For cheese lovers, these ravioli are heavenly. The same can be said for the cheesecake; I thought the dessert was spectacular, although Garrett thought it had a bit too much lemon flavor.

Six days later, Irene Messina and I headed over to Roma for a Friday lunch. We both went for sandwiches: I picked the Vesuvio ($5.99), a warm sandwich with Italian sausage (either mild, hot, extra hot or Count Dracula garlic; I chose the garlic), sautéed onions, roasted red peppers and melted provolone. Irene picked the eggplant Parmesan ($4.99), a warm sandwich with eggplant cutlets, marinara sauce, Parmesan and provolone. I again got the soup of the day, this time potato leek ($2.99), and we ordered a side of stuffed mushrooms ($2) to share.

In terms of enjoyment, this lunch mirrored the previous lunch: Both Irene and I savored our tasty food. Irene noted that the bread was light and fresh, and that the eggplant was sweet and not the least bit bitter. She would have liked a little more marinara sauce on her sandwich, but that's a testament to the sauce's fantastic flavor. My sandwich was awesome, with the sweetness of the peppers, the creaminess of the cheese and the fantastic garlic melding perfectly. The only problem was that the sandwich was a bit awkward to chomp down on, as the sausage was whole and tended to slip around. This problem could have been solved by slicing the sausage in half, although that could potentially dry out the meat.

The four vegetarian stuffed mushrooms were good--the bread-crumb mixture worked well with the earthy flavor of the mushrooms--although the $2 price tag seemed a bit much. The potato leek soup was, again, tastier toward the bottom of the bowl than toward the top, with a peppery kick increasing as I ate. The next time I get soup at Roma, I'll stir it vigorously before I dive in.

We decided to get some cannoli to go (two for $3.50); they made for a delicious, sweet, creamy mid-afternoon snack.

There's a reason why Roma Imports always seems to have a nice number of customers despite its odd location: The place rocks. Whether you're eating in, getting prepared food to go or buying the ingredients to make your own dishes, Roma Imports is sure to delight.

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