Ithaca, N.Y. —  Enzo Merendino ran “Mama Teresa’s Pizzeria” for 15 years in Collegetown on Dryden Road.


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His problem, he says, was simple: Rent kept going up and up, while business flatlined. And it’s not like you can start charging $10 for a slice of pizza, especially with a strong competitor in the nearby Collegetown Pizza, he says.

Enzo Merendino outside of the new "Mama T's" on Ithaca's west end. Merendino says rising rents forced him to leave Collegetown.
Enzo Merendino outside of the new “Mama T’s” on Ithaca’s west end. Merendino says rising rents forced him to leave Collegetown.

“It was 15 years and I knew a lot of people. But I had to start a new location,” Merendino says.

In 2012, Merendino closed “Mama T’s” and it was replaced by a revamped Collegetown Pizza, according to the Cornell Daily Sun.

Some time passed, and then — a few months ago, in the fall of 2014 — Merendino reopened “Mama T’s” in a smaller location on Ithaca’s west end. The foot traffic isn’t as great, he admits, but that’s a small price to pay for the more reasonable rent at 1006 West Seneca Street.

“Collegetown is not the same any more,” Merendino says in an interview this week. “It’s just too expensive … and here it’s cheaper: A lot cheaper.”

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Merendino’s story can be thought of as a microcosm of the Ithaca real estate market.

It’s a well-documented trend, hinted at yet again today by news of Tompkins County’s continuous population growth: Demand for Ithaca real estate outstrips supply, driving up prices and giving local landlords the bargaining power.

That’s exacerbating new levels of inequality in Ithaca. Mayor Svante Myrick recently said that average wealth grew 37% in Tompkins County from 2005-2012, but the median value grew only 15%. Ithaca ranks #2 out of the 363 metropolitan areas in the U.S. for growing income inequality.

Normally, this discussion is usually framed around its impact on affordable housing for Ithaca residents. But the impact can be great for small local merchants like Merendino as well.

Merendino, for instance, says he had a frustrating relationship with his landlord, Jason Fane.

“He kept raising the price all the time, and by more than I expected,” says Merendino, a native of Sicily, in a complaint that echoes those of other businesses.

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Just how much was he paying — over $1,000 in rent? Merendino didn’t give a number, but said that it was well over $1,000.

“People pay thousands for a small room in Collegetown,” he says. “This was thousands of thousands.”

The new “Mama T’s” kept the same basic menu — beef tacos, greasy wings, and, of course, cheesy pizza slices.

The massive flat screen TV showing the soccer games with Merendino’s favorite Italian teams has been replaced by a smaller one, but the eatery mostly looks and feels the same.

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Merendino acknowledged that the winter had been slow. But he has hope that things will pick up during the summer, as families head to the nearby park and signs emerge of other development on Ithaca’s west side.

“Business is all right,” he says. “I’ll try to make it a little better. What else am I going to do?”

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Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.