Ten Penny debuted in December at the corner of 10th Street and Penn Avenue, well-positioned across from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center and at the edge of the Cultural District's booming restaurant corridor.
It's a good-looking place. During a recent Friday lunch, diners relaxed in stylish gray leather banquettes by the windows as March Madness played on TVs over the bar.
Floor to ceiling shelves -- stacked with boxes of kosher salt, red stock pots and Ball canning jars -- create a dining room room-within-a-room, with farmhouse tables atop adjustable steel legs.
The group that owns the place is good at real estate.
Ten Penny is the eighth project from AMPD Group behind Diesel, Skybar, Local Bar + Kitchen, Steel Cactus, Delanie's Coffee and Dominic's Deli and Bottle Shop.
Adam DeSimone runs the group with partners including his younger brother Michael, who still works full-time for American Eagle corporate, and his father, Patrick, who has retired from full-time asset management.
Although TenPenny is the group's first chef-driven restaurant, an endeavor that would require higher staff and food costs, AMPD was hungry for the project.
"We wanted to diversify our portfolio," said Mr. DeSimone. To steer the kitchen, the group hired Scott DeLuca, who had been executive chef at BOhem Bistro and Bar in Cranberry.
Ten Penny can't help but draw a crowd with its good looks and location. It also attracts customers with an interesting wine, beer and cocktail list -- the AMPD formula for past successes. Among choices are dozens of local, imported and craft beers as well as half-, full- and glass-and-a-half pours of Torrontes, Gruner Veltliner, pinot noir and super Tuscans. Cocktails include classic and custom drinks.
Yet for now Ten Penny's food menu is sprawling, with many dishes that aren't particularly good. It requires a diner to order carefully.
Here's how to order if you pay a visit.
Meals have a pleasing start with complimentary baskets of warm mini-muffins and pretzel rolls.
The mega meatball ($8) is terrific. A fist-sized ball served in a cast-iron skilled is dolloped with whipped ricotta, marinara and parmesan. It's inspired by Marcella's in Columbus, Ohio, Adam DeSimone's pick.
Among entrees, the pork chop ($24) is surprisingly good, with vodka pancetta cream, garnished with a whirl of ginger carrot puree, asparagus and whipped potatoes.
The osso buco ($30) is also flavorful. But it's unfortunate the dish veers from Italy with coarse grits laden with goat cheese instead of a side of polenta, which is ground from a different type of corn.
From here, the food and service are plagued by a lack of attention to detail.
Crispy Brussels sprouts ($9) are sticky with Jack Daniel's balsamic glaze and fried beyond recognition, served in a basket that oozes syrup onto the table.
During one visit when I asked a server for a plate, she brought a napkin. When I showed a different server a puddle of glaze, she did the same.
If you're lucky, the staff will not break four glasses during your meal -- one at your table -- nor will the server attempt to sweep shards of glass with bare hands, twice. I wouldn't even mention this, except that another server confirmed that it "happens all the time."
For soup, the New England clam chowder ($7), thick and meaty with bacon and shellfish, is more satiating than the tomato bisque, which is more like a sauce than a soup that needs less sweetness and more acid.
If you're going to order flatbread, go with the margherita ($11) rather than the wild mushroom ($11), as the lemongrass olive oil and truffle cheese clash with the mushrooms.
Gnocchi ($12) has potential, with wild mushroom and goat cheese, but the presentation is bone dry and the gnocchi seem near-translucent, undercooked.
Duck breast ($24) has been seared to brown leather, served with undersalted black rice, baby bok choy and a ginger carrot puree, the best part of the dish.
The desserts would be a bright note because the selection is the most interesting among many restaurants I've visited. But the ideas are better than the execution.
Among the choices of chocolate pretzel torte ($8), truffles ($9), citrus parfait ($8) and warm apple cranberry tartlette ($8), my table ordered s'mores ($8). Who can resist the cheer from a tableside campfire?
It's much less fun when the ingredients that are supposed to be marshmallows are more like kiss-shaped meringues that don't melt. And when we only had three for four people at the table, we quickly learned they're not suited for sharing since they're too tough to tear. To add to the disappointment, the house-baked cookies that are supposed to taste like graham crackers are chalky and flavorless.
Rather than sticking with homespun by using artisan chocolate, the kitchen adheres to tradition and presents candy in the wrapper, which is the only satiating thread of nostalgia for these s'mores.
This led to a diner's parting observation: "At least I liked the Hershey bar."