RATING |

Ever since Diner on the Square departed, the Rittenhouse neighborhood hasn't had a good option for simple fare at a decent price. And let's be real: Even a tony neighborhood needs a place where the waitress calls you "Hon," and you don't have to empty the ATM machine to pay the bill.

Four months ago, Jack Palumbo took over the space recently occupied by Two Red Boots Pizzeria on Chestnut a few blocks off the square. I will say it's a work in progress, but it offers the possibility that students, senior citizens and working stiffs will have a place to hang out and get a free coffee refill.

The breakfast menu (I give that and the lunch menu 2 1/2 forks) boasts several kinds of French Toast and Hot Cakes ($5), and you can upgrade with meat and/or eggs for a few bucks more.

And while I know it means the same thing, hot cakes sounds so much more delicious than pancake.

There's also an extensive list of specialty omelets, or you can create your own. And the gym rat with six-pack abs can enjoy the Catalina ($8.95) - egg whites, turkey breast, spinach, roasted peppers and mushrooms - and still cut a fashionable figure at Rouge later on.

Sandwiches require your mouth's full attention. They are huge. Palumbo roasts his own turkey and beef for the made-to-order sandwiches.

The burgers are great, and considering that your sandwich could run about $15 elsewhere in Center City, the Mega California Cheese Burger is a bargain at $6.95. It's hand-formed and comes with lettuce, tomato and onion on a hard roll.

If you insist on going upscale, order the "Yo Paulie" with spinach, portobella mushroom and sharp provolone ($9.95), but it's definitely big enough to share.

All sandwiches come with fries, which are probably a seven on my 10-point scale of fry perfection (skinny, fresh, hand-cut potatoes cooked the twice-fry method and served with mayonnaise is my idea of heaven).

One of my tasters tried the Tuna on Jewish Rye ($6.95), which was good but could have used a little fresh lemon and dill. I'm guessing this filling works well in the grilled version with Swiss cheese ($6.95), though.

The coleslaw that accompanies the sandwiches is made in-house and it shows, with fresh, crisp crunch and a hint of tang in the dressing.

I've been informed by my spies that there are some stellar soups coming out of the stockpot, but it's hit or miss when they are on the menu, and so far I've missed.

On one visit, my tasters had a sudden emergency, so I decided to fly solo and see how the restaurant handled a single looking for a table on a Saturday night.

I almost expected to be turned away, but there were several others in the lonely heart's club, along with a couple sipping their BYO wine in the corner.

Dinners come with two vegetables or pasta and salad. I'm all for categorizing mashed potatoes and french fries as a vegetable. You'll regret it if you don't order your Baked Meatloaf ($8.95) with mashed potatoes.

First of all, they are the real deal, and the gravy requires it. Second, you'll get two meals out of this.

If you are a light and airy meatloaf fan, you'll enjoy the texture of this one. Aficionados of dense meatloaf will just have to learn to deal - or order the pork chops.

Sadly for me, Calves Liver with Bacon and Onions ($9.95) is off the menu until the chef can find a source for whole liver so he can butcher it himself.

Vodka Rigatoni with Meatball ($12.95) was the one dish I couldn't recommend. The sauce was much too sweet, and the meatball was more like a football. I was expecting a soft, subtle sauce accented with a meatball - a delicate veal of more human proportions would be nice.

Desserts, made by the owner's wife, usually include chocolate cake and banana cake. Tiramisu went missing with the soup and calves liver, but I tried the chocolate cake, which takes you back to '50s devil's food and boiled icing.

As at any self-respecting diner, there are also thick, frosty shakes.

This is an ambitious venture for Palumbo, who is doing this on a shoestring and with hard work. And, no, there's no relation to the fabled South Philly Palumbo's. He does come from a Central Jersey restaurant family, though. Their photos decorate the slightly too pink walls.

The restaurant's perfect kitschy vinyl chairs and Formica tabletops also have a matching set of stools for a counter that is in the planning stages. I hope that expansion happens, along with plans to stay open into the wee hours of the morning for the shift-changers and bar hoppers. *