RATING |

Originally published Sept. 20, 1998.

The plexiglass windows may be scuffed to a foggy patina, but a bright noon sun cut through the Morning Glory Diner to illuminate the grill, where owner Samantha "Sam" Mickey is a short-order flurry of cookery and chatter.

"Talk, talk, talk," she clips to a few of her pals, who gather around the counter in debate over an exotic new beverage. "They say it tastes like a chocolate diet shake . . . not that I've ever tasted one of those."

She ends the thought with a chuckle as the oven door opens, billowing out wafts of the world's cheesiest macaroni, baking away inside as big as a loaf, its crust toasting golden and crisp. Beside it, frittata omelets stuffed with roasted peppers, ham and spinach puff and brown in their pans.

What's good for lunch, Sam?

"Me," she says, scooping whipped cream onto a biscuit.

What else?

"Her," she says, pointing a spatula to the waitress with curly blond tresses.

"Get the macaroni, hon," says the waitress. "You're going to love me."

So, I do. And I do. South Philadelphia's Morning Glory Diner is just the very thing I ordered.

In an era when so many of our old-fashioned diners are slipping away into the microwave age of convenience, this modest, low-slung brick building at the corner of 10th and Fitzwater Streets is breathing new life back into the genre, pouring heart and soul into comfort food that still bothers to be homemade.

Even the ketchup is made from scratch here, in 12 hours of toil and trouble that bring apples, clove and ginger to the sometimes spicy tomato mix. The results are imperfect. But that is one of the charms of the Morning Glory, where Mickey, a longtime bartender and waitress who opened this spot a year ago, has been learning the trials of pro cooking on the job, and with increasing success.

There are times, of course, when the arduous effort just isn't worth it, like the homemade granola that was recently replaced by a supplier's. And despite Mickey's best efforts at organic alchemy, her veggie burger patties ("my nightmare!") squeeze out the sides of the bun like mashed potatoes -- tasty indeed, but more mush than burger patty.

There are also times when this inexperienced kitchen (Mickey turns over the grill to Mary Kate Ralston for dinner) could pay more attention to its high-heat pursuits. An otherwise wonderful "samwich" of grilled Italian sausage, red peppers, and sauteed greens had too much char for its own good. And I've had some pancakes that could have been a little more brown.

But Morning Glory's successes easily outpace its trial-and-error mistakes. With fresh, quality produce, healthful salads, and good ingredients such as the delicious breakfast meats from Godshall's and Italian sausage from Fiorella Bros., it's hard to go wrong when you keep it this simple and affordably priced.

Morning Glory is not Philadelphia's first effort to reclaim good cooking for the diner. Jack McDavid's Down Home Diner in the Reading Terminal Market set the standard there, one that Mickey, a former Down Home employee, readily concedes as one of her big culinary inspirations.

But the Glory has what the Down Home never will -- a colorful, down-to-earth neighborhood that has embraced the fledgling eatery as if it has been a corner fixture in Bella Vista all along. And whether you are among the local faithful who line the sidewalk for weekend brunch, or a stranger taking refuge from a blustery midweek night over a steaming bowl of fresh tomato rice soup, you are bound to wish there were more diners just like it near you, cooking away with the same enthusiastic determination to find just the right recipes.

Mickey and her troops have discovered many. Her pan-baked biscuits are crusted on the outside with curling rocky ridges, but nice and soft inside -- an especially welcoming pedestal for fresh whipped cream and ripe berries. The dense chocolate-peanut butter square is the kind of thing you learn (but never forget) in home-economics class, a do-it-yourself peanut-butter cup brownie.

French toast made from challah bread has a hint of vanilla in its custard and a wonderful homemade strawberry compote that makes the dish complete. The macaroni and cheese, with cheeses including Swiss, Provolone, Cheddar and Parmesan, comes out more like noodle kugel than anything creamy out of a box. But it is the dream my waitress promised.

The pan-baked frittatas arrive tantalizingly puffed, a hearty and satisfying take on the omelet filled with roasted potatoes and smoky ham or good Provolone with sweet roasted peppers. And the real hamburgers are a half-pound victory of char-grilled beef. Served on excellent Metropolitan Bakery buns, they offer one of the best reasons I can think of not to go veggie.

For those who do eschew beef, though, the turkey meat loaf is surprisingly good, avoiding the insipid dry curse of most ground-turkey products. It is actually moist and delicious, filled with fresh basil and a thin stuffing of sun-dried tomatoes and smoked mozzarella cheese -- a meat loaf I have lately begun to crave. The potato pancakes available at dinner had crispy shoestring edges with lots of onions inside, and a free-form shape that reminded me of home-cooked latkes.

As for Mickey's traditional pancake batter, it is so smooth and dense that it has the texture of silk. Add a heaping handful of fruit or chocolate chips, and it becomes one of the Glory's best desserts. In an effort to sophisticize the nighttime menu, though, pancakes have been removed from the dinner desserts -- a mistake, I think, since any self-respecting diner would serve pancakes all the time.

But the recently launched dinner service is a work in progress undergoing constant menu fiddling, with a little more pasta and seafood to come. I'm sure they could be convinced.

At night, the cheery purple and yellow flower-painted walls, which energize during the day with a real diner bustle, dim to slow evening shadows that our waiter charmingly called "ambience." With the welcome added touch of flickering votives, we could see across the sparsely occupied tables that there was indeed some room to spare here for a few hearty pancake eaters.

Nevertheless, with the stereo oscillating between hard guitar licks, cool folkies and souped-up Beatles, the diner's air hummed with sustainably good vibes. Three customers behind us, with the spring of music and a good meal to guide them from their booth, even moved toward the exit in a mini-samba line. Swiveling their hips in unison as the door swung open, they twisted happily from the Morning Glory Diner out into the Bella Vista night. We could only do the same.