The Gerald's Little Italy

Rafa and his bulging forearms love pouring Fernet.

The Watering Hole: The Gerald, 5210 Ballard Ave. N.W., 432-9280, BALLARD

The Atmosphere: It's a shame that the fifth season of Mad Men has finished filming, because The Gerald would make a perfect set for it. Everything is meticulously furnished and fitted in the sort of 1960s retro-chic popularized by Don Draper and co. The only thing missing (though it's certainly not missed) is a perpetual haze of tobacco smoke.

Located across the street from the Tractor on Ballard Avenue, The Gerald takes its name from the painfully punning business that preceded it, a T-shirt shop called Elephants Gerald. At the start of happy hour on a Tuesday afternoon, a medley of hip-hop and reggae plays on the stereo and the only customers are a couple of ladies sipping cocktails and snacking on appetizers.

The Barkeep: Rafael, or just Rafa, is a colorful character who originally hails from Argentina. A former surf bum, he says he's "lived all over the planet" and traveled extensively in pursuit of the perfect wave before settling in Seattle. In addition to tending bar at The Gerald, he can also be found just up the street at Bastille and at Fremont's 35th Street Bistro. Besides bartending, he works part-time as a masseur at Divine Spine, a chiropractic clinic above Ballard restaurant the Hi-Life.

"I love Seattle," he says in splendidly accented English. "I just need to figure out how to get out in December, January, and February and come back."

The Drink: "Hopefully you like bourbon," Rafa says, setting out to make a drink he recently invented: the Little Italy. He grabs a bottle of Maker's Mark, then Aperol, Fernet Branca, and some Angostura bitters. His powerful masseur forearms bulging, he vigorously shakes all the ingredients, strains the mixture into a cocktail glass, and garnishes it with a spiral of orange peel.

The drink has a nice foam ring around the top and a pretty orange hue. Though it's all booze, it goes down smooth, with a flavor vaguely reminiscent of an orange Creamsicle. And there's just enough bourbon to give it a buzz-inducing finishing kick.

The name Little Italy, Rafa explains, comes from the Aperol and the Fernet, the national drink of Argentina. "Fernet and Coke," Rafa says wistfully, noting that his South American homeland is the only country other than Italy authorized to distill Fernet. "Italy says, 'We cannot ship you any more. You consume too much. You make it yourselves.' "

The Verdict: Rafa's Little Italy is an inspired take on a Manhattan, and something I would definitely order again. As for The Gerald, their gussied-up finger food is not something you'd find on the Draper family dinner table. And that's probably for the best: Lest we forget, the '50s and '60s also spawned TV dinners, Cheez Whiz, and Tang.

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