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On a distant day in 1968, a youthful Marine named Rich DiSalvo, just back from Vietnam, was walking down the hall of the old Madison Business College when he passed two young guys sitting on a bench.

DiSalvo was wearing a yellow Marine Corps sweatshirt as he walked by. Nothing about him said he needed help. But he would, and soon.

One of the guys on the bench was a transplant from Lake Geneva named Donald Harris. Everyone called him Hondo.

Harris pointed at DiSalvo in the yellow sweatshirt and said, "See that kid over there? He needs my help."

How did Harris know? He didn't. Call it destiny.

One thing led to another, and they were introduced. It developed that DiSalvo had recently persuaded his parents to turn their State Street pizza restaurant, Casa de Pizza, into a bar. DiSalvo, who would run it, needed a bouncer and a bartender. He figured Harris from Lake Geneva might be the guy.

He figured right. This month, 44 years on, DiSalvo and Harris plan to end one of the most successful and unusual partnerships in the colorful and occasionally chaotic history of Madison taverns.

The friends are selling their current business, the Main Depot on West Main Street, to longtime employee Travis Tripalin. DiSalvo, 65, and Harris, 64, will continue to own the building.

The partnership between Rich and Hondo was unusual only in that it has endured for more than four decades in three locations. The bar business is not famous for that kind of continuity. It was successful because they shared a work ethic and trust. On a lower plane, they both liked sports and the banter that goes back and forth across every bar. If you're going to be there 40 years, you'd better like it.

DiSalvo is a local kid, Madison Central class of 1965. Harris came up from Lake Geneva, where he was a standout schoolboy basketball player. Hondo got his nickname in seventh grade when someone compared him to John "Hondo" Havlicek. It's worth noting that another celebrated Madison saloon keeper, James "Buck" Dailey, was also a basketball star in high school in Lake Geneva. Both Dailey and Harris were big scorers.

"Neither one of them ever passed the ball," DiSalvo said.

DiSalvo named the transformed State Street pizza place the Villa Tap. It was in the 300 block and had a back door that opened onto Henry Street. The Huss family owned the nearby Plaza and were quick with help and advice, though DiSalvo and Harris knew on their own not to serve the inebriated. One day, Rich refused service to someone who stormed out onto State Street. The guy rounded the corner, came in the Henry Street entrance, saw DiSalvo and sputtered, "Do you work at every bar in the city?"

In 1978, Rich and Hondo left State Street for Packers Avenue, opening the Villa Tap in what had been the Music Box. The Villa quickly became one of the city's best neighborhood saloons. A popular item was the "international sandwich" — Italian sausage, Swiss cheese, Spanish onions and Greek olives on French bread. There were baseball cards under the laminated horseshoe bar and players from the Madison Muskies — who played at nearby Warner Park — on the stools. One day, Hondo had to tell Eddie Mathews (who coached with the Muskies' big league parent) he'd had enough. Kate Jackson, of "Charlie's Angels," he served.

In 1983, DiSalvo and Harris bought Trameri's Tavern on West Main Street. Rich's cousin ran it while they stayed at the Villa Tap. It was in 1998, with the opening of the Kohl Center, that DiSalvo and Harris sold the Villa and came Downtown to operate the Main Depot.

Kohl Center event nights were lucrative, but the bar business is every day. Rich and Hondo soon gave the place a neighborhood feel. The regular clientele included politicos, lawyers, sports figures and fans.

DiSalvo handled food and maintenance. Harris did liquor and scheduling. Each was smart enough not to drink too much in their own place. At a recent city meeting to transfer the liquor license, longtime alder Mike Verveer praised them as good residents of the neighborhood.

They're ready for a rest, but Hondo figures to work a few days a week while Tripalin adjusts to owning the business. Rich will likely be around, too. Mostly they're thinking how 40 years went by in a flash. "It's been a great run," Rich said.

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

 

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