Maialino at Gramercy Park Hotel- New York

One of the hottest restaurants in New York City and the winner of 2011 Zagat Survey’s Best New Restaurant in New York is Maialino, a Roman-style trattoria in the exclusive Gramercy Park area.   This quaint Italian restaurant is the newest addition to restaurateur Danny Meyer’s empire which includes the Shake Shack chain, Eleven Madison Park, Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern (voted 2011 Zagat Survey New York’s most popular restaurant for the 6th time in 10 years).   With dinner reservations being booked for months ahead since its opening last fall and the walk-in bar perennially overflowing with patrons, breakfast or lunch is an easier alternative to trying Maialino.  In fact, lunch may be one of the best times to dine there, when the bright warm sun shines through the large bay windows that look out onto Gramercy Park- but even for lunch, you’ll have to make a reservation weeks in advance. 

Located off of Gramercy Park Hotel’s main lobby, Maialino’s interior creates a warm and inviting atmosphere that naturally encourages mingling, conversation and feasting.  Next to the large open bar are the charcuterie, cheese, pastry and bread counters that are lined with mouthwatering delicacies that emanate enticing aromas.  Walk past the counters to arrive at the rear dining room where the blue checkered tablecloths and antique framed photos of Italy will transport you to a rustic Roman trattoria.  The Italian menu comes courtesy of Executive Chef Nick Anderer, who got his first big start at Babbo, then spent a year working in Milan after which he returned to New York City to cook at Gramercy Tavern.  The menu draws its inspirations from classic Roman dishes using locally grown seasonal produce. 

When Danny Meyers used to work in Rome, locals affectionately called him Meyerlino, which means ‘little Meyer’.  Eventually that name morphed into Maialino, which means ‘little pig’, hence the name of the restaurant and the theme of the menu which is slow-roasted crispy-skinned suckling pig.  Trotters, guanciale and different cuts of suckling pig find its way throughout the menu. 

Trippa alla Trastaverina is a beautiful plate of tender strips of tripe stewed in a tomato based sauce, coated with generous sprinklings of pecorino and mint.  Pile the tripe onto their freshly baked bread, wait for a few seconds for the tomato sauce to soak through the top layer and devour it whole.  The tripe melts like butter and tastes like heaven. 

Other enticing antipastis include chicken liver and aged balsamic crostone di fegato, and fried artichokes in anchovy bread sauce (carciofini fritti).  A plate of assorted charcuterie featuring prosciutto di Parma from Emilia-Romagna and soppressata picante from Long Island with buffalo mozzarella will make lunch even more perfect.

Insalata Misticanza is a simple salad made with seasonal greens, lemon and olive oil, and even this is fantastic, as all produce are from the Greenmarket farmers market. 

One of their signature dishes is the Malfatti al Maialino, a buttery suckling-pig ragù that clings onto folded sheets of hand torn malfatti pasta.  Generous chunks of tender pork are magnificent, its fattiness cut by bitter arugula.  The dish is perfect, but I can’t help but wonder how the pasta would taste with a few bits of crispy maialino pork skin thrown in.  

Other primi pasta dishes stick to Roman classics, like bucatini all’Amatriciana, fettuccine alla Carbonara (both with guanciale) and tonnarelli cacio e pepe. Paninis for brunch and lunch feature a porchetta sandwich with slow roasted suckling pig and egg.

Secondis offer a wide variety of proteins, like hanger steak bistecca di bue, pollo milanese, suckling pig terrine and suckling pig’s foot, but our server insists that we get the swordfish.  How can swordfish be the best thing on the menu?  It’s always overcooked, tough, tasteless and boring.  I push through my skepticism and follow his orders.  He is right.

Pesce Spada is a simple no-fuss dish with grilled swordfish, eryngii king trumpet mushrooms and sprinkles of fennel fronds, but so perfect in execution that it becomes sensational.  The swordfish is tender, buttery, rich and delicious. 

Desserts offer a classic lineup of Italian sweets, like gianduja budino, torta della nonna, affogato and a variety of gelato.  Torta di Olio d’Oliva, an olive oil cake with vanilla bean mascarpone, pleases with a rich nutty flavor inside a soft moist batter. 

Other sections of the Gramercy Park Hotel, newly renovated by Ian Schrager, are worth a visit.  The majestic lobby lined with crimson red carpet and tall wooden ceilings are awe inspiring, and every nook and cranny shows a diffferent combination of design form.   Some flaunt eerie goth embellishments like shark tooth sword lamps, while others transport you to the hotel in ‘The Shining’.

Large chandeliers and dramatic red velvet curtains set the stage for contemporary paintings by Warhol, Basquiat and Haring, but once you step into the exclusive bar that branches off of the lobby, you will see an expression of 21st century bohemia.   Whichever section of the hotel you decide to browse, it will be a magical escape far away from the sights and sounds of the concrete jungle outside. 

The Private Roof Club and Garden upstairs is another gorgeous Ian Schrager space, with tables and a bar situated underneath a retractable roof 16 stories above the city.  The ceiling of the indoor lounge features an incredible mass of hanging light bulbs, perhaps numbering in the 300’s, that add to the drama of the intimate space. 

The outdoor section evokes an urban oasis, a tropical greenhouse in the middle of the city,  with wicker chairs strewn along a corridor of hanging ivy and potted green plants. 

Most likely you’re not one of the privileged few who reside in and have a key to the private Gramercy Park, but the rooftop club will do for now.  Gaze out onto the park and the rest of Manhattan while you sip on martinis on your private little bench in the corner.  All yours, at least for a couple of hours until you close your bill.   

Maialino at Gramercy Park Hotel

2 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10010
(212) 777-2410

Random trivia:  Did you know that the swordfish has the widest temperature tolerance of any billfish,  with the ability to swim the surface and dive to depths of 2,100 feet (650 m) or greater, where the water temperature may be just above freezing?  They have a ‘brain and eye heater’, a special bundle of tissue that insulates and warms these organs.  This helps to prevent rapid cooling and damage to the brain, and increases visual acuity in cold deep waters.

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Cecconi’s

I recently had delicious Sunday brunch at Cecconi’s in West Hollywood, where the old Morton’s space used to be on the corner of Robertson and Melrose.  I had already heard great reviews about Cecconi’s, whose original flagship restaurant was in London.  As soon as I walked into the restaurant on that bright sunny Sunday afternoon, I was in love.  The large outdoor patio with comfortable and inviting benches adorned with plush white shabby chic cushions took my breath away.  Brilliant sunlight spilled generously over the entire patio, illuminating the colorful flowers behind the couches as chirping birds filled the air with summer song.  IMG_9810Large open wooden framed accordion doors separated the patio from the inside dining room and bar.  The center bar, made of white and black marble countertops and tall teal colored leather barstools with brass studs, was lined with perfectly polished wine glasses and colorful bottles of liquer.  Middle aged men in jeans and collared shirts drinking bourbon seemed relaxed and happy as they chatted with the handsome bartenders through hanging hams and sausages.  To the left of the dining room was a gorgeous private room called the Butterfly Room, ornamented with a large chandelier, tall iron candelabra and a large orange heart-shaped wall installation with floating butterflies.  As the servers promptly set my table with crisp white napkins, silver salt and pepper shakers and polished cutlery,  I felt like nobility in this peaceful colonial chic restaurant.

We started off with freshly squeezed blood orange juice which was nicely tart and refreshing.  Each order was an entire full carafe of juice, which I appreciated.  The grilled squid salad with lentils, spicy salami and sundried tomato was marvelous.  It’s actually difficult to find a restaurant here in Los Angeles that not only serves squid but does it well.  The thick cuts were perfectly cooked to an exquisite tenderness, and the saltiness from the salami and sun dried tomatoes was well balanced.

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The baked pancetta frittata came straight out of their wood baked oven behind the bar.  The eggs were cooked just right and the pancetta had great savory smokey flavor.

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I loved their thin crusted wood baked pizza with homemade sausage and roasted red peppers.  The crust had a splendid chewy consistency with a crispy warm outer shell, and the sausage was delicious.

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So far so good…I felt confident that they would make a good tiramisu.  I still have yet to encounter a restaurant that can make a tiramisu better than mine, but this one was pretty close.  The sweetness of the mascarpone was nicely subdued, and the ladyfingers were perfectly soaked.

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Too bad I was only there for brunch that day with one other friend, otherwise I could have ordered much more.  I will definitely be back to try more items like their pastas and grilled meats.  I also have my eye on their cicchettis (Italian tapas), such as the bone marrow with focaccia, grilled octopus, and zucchini blossoms.  What’s amazing about this elegant restaurant is that they are open for almost 24 hours.  I can go for early breakfast at 7am, lunch at noon, afternoon eats at 4pm, dinner at 8pm or afterhours munchies at 1am.  Or maybe I’ll just hang out on one of their comfortable patio couches for a continuous 19 hour Cecconi fest.

http://www.cecconiswesthollywood.com

Random trivia:   Did you know that in the male squid, one smaller arm is modified for the purpose of planting a packet of sperm in the female’s oviduct?  Next time you eat these scrumptous long delicacies, see if you can tell which one that is!

Or not…

Minestraio Trattoria

What a timely follow up to my previous blog entry about Riva- last week I dined at the newly opened Minestraio Trattoria in West Hollywood.  It hadn’t even been open for a week, but the restaurant was packed.  The restaurant was reopened by famed Italian chef Gino Angelini (of Angelini Osteria and La Terza; he is also Jason Travi’s mentor), in the previous La Terza space.  The interior decor and layout has not been changed at all.  This was a tad bit disappointing, as well as the large flat screen TV by the bar airing ESPN.  Seriously, what is it with the sports bar thing?

Especially in these tough economic times, Minestraio Trattoria is a breath of fresh air.  There is no pretentiousness, no attitude, and no ridiculously overpriced meals.  We got friendly smiles, wonderful service, spectacular food, and a great deal.  Minestraio is very reasonably priced, but they absolutely do not compromise on the quality of the food.

For starters, the bread and olive oil was superb.  I knew that I shouldn’t be filling up on bread, but I couldn’t stop.  The olive oil was green, earthy, rich  and nutty.  Just delicious. We had the chopped salad with chicken, avocado and cannellini (white beans).

Chicken and avocado salad

Chicken and avocado salad

This was a very simple salad that was well executed.  All of the ingredients were fresh and flavorful.  The dressing had a nice acidic citrus kick to it that worked well with the buttery avocado and cannellinis.  Other items on the antipasti menu were caprese, eggplant parmigiana, and beef carpaccio.  All are priced between $7-12. They serve 3 types of panini during lunch only- vegetarian, chicken breast, and turkey provolone.  They are priced between $7-9.

Pastas are the main star of the Minestraio menu.  There are 20 different types to choose from, and they are all priced between $8-16.  Most of the pastas are very basic and classic Italian dishes, like pomodoro, arrabiatta, vongole and lasagna.  The food culture has become so snobby and pretentious these days that it’s unusual for a big name chef to open a restaurant that serves basic simple dishes.  I’ve become used to reading long complicated explanations under each menu item, so it was a pleasant surprise to see this menu that was so easy to read and navigate.  Angelini has always been known to be strong in his basic meat ragus, so I opted for the Bolognese, made with homemade tagliatelle, beef ragu and parmigiano.

Bolognese

Bolognese

How beautiful is that?  A simple, basic, pure bolognese.  Nothing excessive, nothing added onto it for extra flare or fanciness, nothing to spoil the pureness of it.  And this, may I remind you, is at a Gino Angelini restaurant.

The first time I had a real bolognese dish was back in college when I was backpacking through Europe.  I was 21 years old, and until then I thought that bolognese was the kind of spaghetti with runny meat sauce that you see on Prego jar labels.  I didn’t know any better.  I had never been to Italy.  But boy, I can still remember so clearly that hot summer day in Firenze that I had my first true bolognese.  It blew my mind away.  It was my first time having homemade tagliatelle pasta.  It was dense and chewy, yet tender and light at the same time.  I couldn’t believe how good this pasta was, and how it went so well with the ragu.  The sauce clinged so well to the wide flat pasta, and it was a perfect combination.  I was also amazed at how the true Italian ragu wasn’t runny or liquidy.  It didn’t overwhelm the pasta, but it existed in harmony with it.  I was so shocked at this bolognese experience, that I was left speechless for the rest of the day.  And here I was at Minestraio, many many years later, reliving that experience of having amazing bolognese.  I almost cried.

We also got the Melanzane, rigatoni with eggplant ragu and dry ricotta.

Melanzane

Melanzane

The rigatoni was cooked to a perfect al dente, and the eggplant ragu was rich, light, and smoky.  Again, another basic dish that was cooked flawlessly.

We also got the Funghi dish, a homemade papperdelle with mixed mushrooms.  They used shiitake and oyster mushrooms.  A very aromatic earthy sauce that complemented the superb homemade pasta.

Funghi pappardelle

Funghi pappardelle

This was another dish where the pasta and the sauce was in perfect balance.  It was just as much about the pasta as it was about the sauce. Some of the other pasta dishes that I want to go back and try are: homemade tortellini filled with pork beef and parmigiano in chicken broth, gobetti pasta with sausage cream ragu, fusilli pasta with lamb ragu and mint, agnolotti filled with veal ossobuco, and taglioni with lemon zest parsley and cream sauce.  Most of the pasta dishes are $10-11.

My friends and I shared the grilled sausage with roasted potatoes as a secondi dish.  Other items on the secondi menu are rotisserie chicken, pork chop alla milanese, and beef tagliata dry aged rib eye.  The rib eye, for $19.50, is the most expensive item on the entire menu.  The grilled fennel sausage was absolutely delicious.  I could’ve easily eaten the whole dish by myself. It wasn’t greasy or heavy at all.

Grilled sausage

Grilled sausage

I loved the glass of 2005 Ruffino Modus Cabernet Sangiovese that I had with my meal.  All of the wines are also reasonably priced here at Minestraio.

Last but not least, dessert.  All three of us wanted something different, but we only wanted to order 2 desserts.  Uh oh, do we need to start a cat fight? I wanted tiramisu, especially since I couldn’t have it at Riva.  Tiramisu is my favorite dessert in the world.  If it’s available, I will always order it no matter how full I am.  I will be forever grateful to the Italians for inventing tiramisu.  Our friendly and wonderful waiter solved our dilemma by offering us complimentary tiramisu tasters.  What?! Free tiramisu at an Angelini restaurant?  Did I die and go to heaven?

Tiramisu

Tiramisu

Even though the tiramisu only lasted 3 bites, it was divine.  The mascarpone zabaglione was light and airy with just the right sweetness and creaminess.  The soaked lady fingers were still fluffy and not overwhelmed by the espresso.

My other favorite dish of the evening was the Torta della Nonna, Italian for ‘grandma’s cake’.  This was a pine nut tart with vanilla bean gelato.  It was superb.

Torta della Nonna

Torta della Nonna

I wonder which lucky Italian bastard’s grandmother first invented this?  I loved everything about this dish.  The custard inside the cake made with vanilla beans was smooth and creamy, the cake crust was dense and buttery, the pine nuts were soft with an aromatic earthy flavor, and the vanilla gelato was delicious.  Oh, Nonna!

Our third dessert was the Panna Cotta alla Vaniglia, vanilla panna cotta with strawberry sauce.

Panna Cotta

Panna Cotta

The panna cotta was good, but it wasn’t great.  It wasn’t creamy enough.  The best panna cotta I’ve ever had is my foodie friend Shirley’s homemade panna cotta that I had a couple of months ago.

Shirley's panna cotta

Shirley's panna cotta

How cute is that?  She brought the panna cotta, chocolate wafers, and homemade chocolate sauce in that cute little basket.

Panna cotta

Panna cotta

This panna cotta was rich, dense, creamy and thick.  It was pure heaven.  Shirley made a chocolate sauce to go with it, but I opted to enjoy this dish in its pure and naked form. Sorry to go on a tangent, but this was the perfect place to showcase her panna cotta.

Minestraio Trattoria is Italian food in its most pure, true and uncorrupted state.  It just doesn’t get any better than this.  My friends and I ate all of this fantastic food plus wine for $38 a person.  Angelini Osteria used to be one of my favorite Italian restaurants, but I didn’t go too frequently because of the cost.  On the other hand, Minestraio is the type of place that I will probably go a few times a month.  It’s casual, reasonably priced, the service is great, and the food is fantastic.  When we left, the entire wait staff and the chef de cuisine came out to thank us and give us a warm farewell.  From beginning to end, my dining experience at Minestraio was wonderful.

http://www.minestraio.com/

(website not up yet, but this is the address that was on their menu)

8384 West 3rd street, Los Angeles, 90048

(323) 782-8384

Random updates:

Pizzeria Mozza is making a take-out counter that is under construction right now.  It is sandwiched between the Pizzeria and the Osteria.  They are planning to open in April.  FYI, after trying all of the pizzas on their menu, my favorite is still the fennel sausage, panna, red onions and scallions pizza.  Nothing beats it.

http://www.mozza-la.com/

Comme ça (see previous blog entry) closed down the Boule patisserie, but they are planning to open a new bakery this summer just down the street from the old Boule location on La Cienega Blvd.  The Comma ça Bakery, spearheaded by Japanese baker Hidefumi Kubota, will still sell some of the macaroons and caramels that were made famous at Boule.  David Myers is planning to open a second outpost of Pizzeria Ortica close to the bakery.  Are we ready for another pizzeria in LA?  Hmmm…I’m not so sure…

http://www.commecarestaurant.com/

Riva


IMG_3605Fraiche in Culver City is one of my favorite restaurants in Los Angeles, and it even won praise as Los Angeles Magazine’s Best New Restaurant Pick for 2007.  Chef Jason Travi and his wife Miho really established themselves at this wonderful restaurant that still brings in the crowds.  I’ve been a huge fan of Travi’s food from the time when he spearheaded La Terza restaurant on 3rd Street (which is now gone.  Gino Angelini, Travi’s mentor at La Terza, just reopened the space this past weekend as Minestraio Trattoria).  I was really excited to try Riva, Travi’s new digs in Santa Monica.  I went in with an open mind, despite mixed reviews on Yelp and Chowhound.

Riva means ‘shoreline’ in Italian; it features more seafood, and is only a few blocks away from the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica.  The interior features high ceilings, large mirrors on the walls, an open kitchen, and a large bar-  simple and elegant like most other nice restaurants in LA or NY.

As soon as we were seated , the first thing we all noticed was the deafening noise level.  Hands down, this was the noisiest restaurant that I’ve ever been too.  I felt like we were at a bar or a lounge.  Halfway through the meal, I got so tired of leaning in, shouting, and saying “What?” all the time, that I just zoned out of the table conversation.

The menu has 4 categories: Crudo, Appetizers, Pizza, and Entrees.  Crudo means ‘raw’ in Italian and Spanish, and it generally refers to raw slices of seafood dressed in olive oil, sea salt, and some type of acid (vinegar or citrus juice).  Depending on how it’s arranged or dressed, it’s fancy sashimi, ceviche, tartare, or carpaccio.  This concept of Italian sashimi became popular when Mario Batali succeeded in doing it well at his NY eatery Esca many years ago.  Riva makes them with fluke, geoduck clam, cuttlefish, sea bass, tuna, and other sea creatures.  We ordered the scallops that came in a citrus oil dressing with bread crumbs and red peppers.  It was good, but a bit bland and lacking in acidity.

Scallop crudo

Scallop crudo

I ordered the house made Testa Rossa from the appetizer menu.  Testa is head cheese, which is a cold cut meat dish made from the head of a pig, calf, cow or sheep.  The head of a freshly slaughtered animal is carefully cleaned and prepped, then it’s simmered in a large stockpot for hours until the meat falls right off the skull.  All of these juicy tender bits of meat along with the stock, are refrigerated to set in pans or molds to make a terrine, or rolled into a large sausage.  The collagen from all of the cartilage and bone marrow of the skull gives head cheese that gelatin-like consistency when cooled.  Head cheese is usually eaten chilled or at room temperature so that all of that wonderful collagen doesn’t melt.

Testa Rossa

Testa Rossa

The testa was garnished with radish, mint, lemon and watercress.  As you can see, theirs is a rolled testa (looks like a slice of pancetta), as opposed to a terrine with chopped up bits.  It was heavy in fat content and low on meat, which went well with the tart acidic garnish, but somehow I was left unsatisfied.

We ordered the Nizza pizza with black olive, anchovy, sweet onion, capers and thyme.  Riva makes thin crust pizzas.

Nizza pizza

Nizza pizza

Our server told us that the pizza is made without cheese, but if we wanted it with cheese, it was an additional 2 dollars.  I wish they would either not offer the cheese option if the cheeseless pizza was their original inspiration, offer the cheese option gratis, or indicate the $2 cheese option charge on the menu.   Was I being too picky or is it the noise level getting to me?  Well, we did order the pizza with cheese.  The pizza was well done, and the crust was done the way I like it- crispy on the outside, doughy on the inside.  The flavor of the toppings came together nicely and it made for a nice shared appetizer.

For main entrees, we ordered the monkfish, lamb, and seafood bouillabaisse.

Monkfish saltimbocca

Monkfish saltimbocca

Monkfish saltimbocca on a bed of potato puree, spinach and pancetta, with a sage and marsala sauce.

Lamb Spezzatino

Lamb Spezzatino

Braised lamb in a tomato sauce over a bed of three color cauliflower and creamy semolina with a hint of smoked cheese and parsley gremolata.  I didn’t taste the monkfish dish, but the lamb dish was fantastic.  The lamb cubes were very tender, and each bite had so many layers of flavors- the rich and robust tomato flavored lamb stew, followed by the creaminess of the semolina, with a smokey cheese undertone, finishing off with the tart freshness of the gremolata.  I wanted to order that dish but since somebody else was getting that, I decided to go with something else for variety.  I regretted this decision.

Shellfish Fra Diavolo

Shellfish Fra Diavolo

Fra Diavolo is a tomato based sauce with garlic and hot peppers, frequently used for pastas and seafood.  According to the menu, my dish was supposed to have a half lobster, shrimp, mussels, clams, squid, and fregola sarda.  Fregola sarda is a toasted Sardinian pasta, and it looks like pearl sized cous cous or tapioca, only much denser.  My dish was okay- the tomato sauce lacked richness and flavor, and the lobster meat was spongy.  I was so bored with my seafood dish that I didn’t even realize it was missing the squid until I was almost done with it.  Instead, it had a few chunks of tasteless unidentified white fish.  I informed my server about the missing squid, and she apologized for the kitchen screw-up.  Sigh…

Another turn off with the seafood dish was that the half lobster came with a fully intact large lobster claw, and they gave me a large silver lobster cracker.  I was very surprised that this seemingly upscale restaurant would expect their customers to get their hands and clothes dirty trying to crack a lobster claw doused in tomato sauce.  I was wearing a white silk blouse, and was not about to ruin it with bright red tomato splatter.  Sigh…

There’s an entree item on the menu called Costata di Bue per due, prime rib for 2.  The table close to us ordered it.  They bring a big chunk of prime rib from the kitchen and the maitre d’ slices it on a rolling chopping block in front of you.

Prime rib

Prime rib

I think I was the only one who noticed that the maitre d’s jacket kept brushing up against the meat.  Yuck.

I was hoping that Riva would redeem themselves with dessert, but they loved letting me down that night.  I was so excited to try their Tiramisu, but I was told that they were out.  How can you be out of a dessert option?  That’s crazy.  The others got carrot cake and gelati.

Carrot cake

Carrot cake

Carrot cake with pineapple sorbet.

Gelati & sorbetti

Gelati & sorbetti

Butterscotch gelati and peach sorbetti.

I was so let down by this point that I didn’t even have the motivation to try these desserts.

Despite my excitement about trying this restaurant,  I didn’t have a good dining experience at Riva.  I was thoroughly disappointed with the quality of the food, the poor service, and the low caliber of the staff.  For $90 a person, I think it’s fair to expect a certain level of service and food.

The best thing about my dinner was the wine.  We had a wonderful 2005 Capezzana, Barco Reale di Carmignano.

Riva is supposed to be strong on their crudo dishes and pizza.  My advice for you- go to Japanese sushi restaurants for good raw fish, and Terroni or Pizzeria Mozza for better pizza.  If you’re looking for a good dining experience in Santa Monica, take your loved ones to Anisette.  And if you’re still keen on trying Travi’s food, stick to Fraiche.

http://www.rivarestaurantla.com/

Random trivia: Did you know that Oscar Best Actress winner Halle Berry ate raw fish so she could throw up on cue and look authentic doing it while filming the movie ‘Perfect Stranger’?  Now that’s dedication to your art, girl.