A Little Italy, a Little Argentina, and a Little Americana at The Gerald

Rafa The Gerald.jpg
photo by Keegan Hamilton
Rafa rocks a brim at The Gerald
The Watering Hole: The Gerald, 5210 Ballard Ave NW, 432-9280. BALLARD.

The Atmosphere: It's a shame that the fifth season of Mad Men is already finished filming because The Gerald would make a perfect set for the show. Everything in the place -- from the faux-wood paneling on the walls, to the tweed-upholstered booths -- is meticulously furnished and fitted in "mid-century modern" style, the sort of 1950s and 60s 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 Ave, The Gerald takes its name from the painfully-punned 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 raggae plays on the stereo, and the only customers are a couple ladies sipping cocktails and snacking on appetizers.

The Barkeep: Rafael, or just Rafa for short, is a colorful character who originally hails from Argentina. A former surf bum, he says he "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 masseuse at Divine Spine, a chiropractic clinic above The Hi-Life restaurant in Ballard.

"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 and dubbed "The Little Italy." He grabs a bottle of Makers Mark, then Aperol, Fernet Branca, and some Angostura Bitters. With his powerful masseuse 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 to it. Even though it's all booze, it goes down smooth, with a flavor that is vaguely reminiscent of an orange Creamsicle. There's just enough bourbon to give it a buzz-inducing finishing kick.

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

The Verdict: Not only does Rafa spin a great yarn (ask him about going surfing in the Hamptons on 9/11), he pours fine cocktail. His Little Italy is an inspired take on a Manhattan, and something I would definitely order again.

As for The Gerald and its mid-century modern infatuation, the bar manages to avoid being pretentious by knowing when to deviate from the theme. I sampled several tasty appetizers on my visit -- highlighted by pigs in a blanket with house-made sausage links (see pic below), and bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with asiago cheese -- and the gussied-up finger-food is not something you'd find on the Draper family dinner table. And that's probably for the best, since nostalgia and good taste aren't always compatible. Lest we forget, the 50s and 60s were the decades that spawned McDonald's, Spam, and TV dinners, in addition to good things like the Beatles, space travel, and, eventually, Mad Men.

Photo by Keegan Hamilton
The Gerald's tasty version of Pigs in a Blanket

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