In dad's shoes at the deli Carrying on: They still ask for Chick Levitt at Chick and Ruth's in Annapolis, but son, Ted, is now running the place and keeping his deceased father's legacy alive.

March 11, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

The phone rings at Chick and Ruth's Delly. It's someone asking for Chick.

"Charles Levitt? Is that who you're looking for?" asks Ted Levitt, the deli owner's only son. "No. No. He's not here. He's passed away now. Sure. I know you didn't. It's no problem."

He hangs up the phone and keeps moving. It is the 7 a.m. breakfast rush at the Annapolis delicatessen, and Ted is preparing to handle it alone.

Most people know Chick and Ruth's as the place where politicians eat, schmooze, and if they're really important, get a sandwich named after them. Some of them recognize Ted as an endearing supporting player, a son who always laughed approvingly in the background as his charismatic father bantered with the crowd.

To Ted, the deli is the place he and his father became best friends. When Chick died just over a year ago, Ted held onto the restaurant as tightly as memories of his father held onto him. Like the caller on the phone, sometimes he still finds himself looking for Chick.

"I keep waiting for him to walk through the door," says Ted, whose pale skin and red hair make him look like a young version of his dad. "When I'm there, it seems like he's there, too."

Ted is 39 years old, about the age Chick was when he opened the deli with his wife, Ruth, in 1965. Like his father, Ted wants to work there until the day he dies.

He all but grew up in the hole-in-the-wall restaurant named for his Baltimore-born parents. Like a childhood home, every fixture triggers a memory -- from the meat slicer that cut off half his right thumb to the banquette that proved good for napping.

From the start, Ted was eager to work. When he was 8, he swabbed counters and cleared tables. He took over the deli's accounting at age 13 and began investing his father's money a few years after that. By the 11th grade, he was ready to leave school and work full time.

Only Chick could slow his son down. He insisted Ted go to college and paid his son's way through the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and later an accounting program at Florida Internation- al University. But Ted's schooling -- and even a brief stint at his father-in-law's catering business in Baltimore -- seemed like formalities. He was always trying to get back to where he started -- standing next to his dad at the deli.

Since his father's death, Ted has warmed to the spotlight, albeit slightly differently than Chick did. Where his father used to schmooze and entertain politicians, Ted is a self-trained magician and natural jokester who often gravitates toward children. TC He relishes his role as a businessman -- even Chick deferred to his son's judgment when it came to handling the deli's money. Now, Ted is renovating the front of the restaurant, adding more salads to the menu and putting a pretzel stand by one of the picture windows. His national franchise, "Uncle Teddy's Pretzels," has taken off, installed in more than a dozen locations such as stadiums and amusement parks. And he is enjoying success with a vending company and magic show business and is active in several charities.

Ted says he misses his father the most when he isn't working. He hasn't taken a day off since Chick's death on Jan. 22, 1995.

"I don't know how it's possible to be happier than anybody and sadder than anybody," he says. "But I think that's how I feel."

These days, Ted tells stories at the deli just like his dad did. But now the subject is Chick.

During a recent lunchtime lull, Ted talked about the time he and his father took a canoe trip in Deep Creek Lake in Western Maryland. The two were hamming it up in front of Ted's video camera, waving their paddles, pretending they were discovering America. Suddenly, Chick stood up and the canoe tipped, sending both men and the camera over the side.

Ted panicked, knowing his father couldn't swim. He saw in the water six feet under him his father's face, eyes wide open and bubbles rushing from his mouth as he screamed. Ted dived down and pulled his father to the surface, hugging him until help arrived.

Chick would boast about how Ted had saved his life. But once, after his wife's death a decade ago, Chick asked his son why he didn't just leave him underwater. "I should have gone then," he would say. "I should be with her."

Ted knows what it's like to get left behind. He dreams of the videotape lying at the bottom of the lake and wishes he could salvage it. He wants to replay that day.

Although Chick had ongoingheart problems, Ted was not prepared to say goodbye when a final heart attack killed his father at age 67. And while more than 1,000 people came to Chick's funeral in Baltimore, no mourner seemed more heartbroken than Ted.

"They had a real love affair going on," said Natalie Goldstein, 37, Ted's younger sister. "He misses him all the time."

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