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The Taste: An Interview with Chef Wagner of Blackwall Hitch Annapolis and the Recipe for his Popular Cioppino Dish

Mar 20, 2017 04:14PM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Rita Calvert // Photography by Tony Lewis, Jr.

Blackwall Hitch Annapolis | 400 Sixth Street, Annapolis | 410-263-3454

We have visited the beautiful Blackwell Hitch of Annapolis in the past, but this time I talk to Executive Chef Mike Wagner to understand how their three restaurants work together and what makes the Annapolis location so special. Chef Wagner shares a very popular Cioppino recipe with us—chock full of bounty from the sea.

Can you give us a quick reminder how the restaurant’s name came to be?

It’s all about connection… just as sailors quickly linked their boats to the docks at London’s busy Blackwall Port in the late 1800s (thus the namesake of the nautical knot—the Blackwall Hitch), Blackwall Hitch restaurant is all about connection. First, we work to be connected to our guests. We strive to be staffed with passionate people who invite you to celebrate good times and great food with us. We also work at connecting with local food sourcing opportunities. My in-store executive chefs along with myself work with our vendors to bring business to local growers and watermen to source ingredients from the area. We design our menu to change with the season, that way our cuisine will always reflect the great bounty of the region.

There are three Blackwall Hitch Restaurants- Annapolis, Alexandria, Virginia, and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. How is the Annapolis location different?

Annapolis is our flagship location and is utilized not only as a training ground for all our new managers and chefs, but also as my own test kitchen. Several times a year, I gather our chef teams from each location in Annapolis to explore new cooking techniques, judge how to incorporate the latest foodie trend, or just experiment with a new ingredient. Our menus are a collaborative effort among all my chefs and cooks, and Annapolis will always play a role in being our home base for all new and exciting menus developed by our team.

What is new since we have last gotten together? 

We always like to challenge ourselves to look for ways to bring high-level, fine dining to all of our guests. This year, for example, we’ve launched a three-course Surf & Turf menu where guests get to choose from a selection of “Surf” and “Turf” options. In essence, guests get to create their own Surf & Turf meal by crafting their main course as well as what appetizer or dessert they’d like from that menu. It’s really interesting to see some of the meals guests are choosing! It definitely helps keep us in tune with what our patrons want to see and have available to them on our menus.

Chef Wagner, what was your background and training to become a chef?

Though I have professional training from the Culinary Institute of America, I’ve worked in the restaurant industry for too many years to talk about! I also spent a lot of time working for what might be called “elite” or “high profile clients” privately. I always look to include my own personal flair for taste and balance to leave my guests with a lasting impression. That’s why having the collaborative effort with the all my chefs when we do the seasonal changes to our menu is so important.

Chef, how can you oversee all three restaurants?

Well, my odometer would tell you that it takes a lot of dashboard time to manage three operations in three different states. But to be honest, it’s all about cultivating a great team where we all have the common goal of bringing our guests the best experience possible. Each of my executive chefs brings a great deal of experience and amazing individual and unique talents, but as a team we all hold the same goal of bringing our guests the best of the region and the highest quality experience we can provide.

Does the Annapolis Blackwall Hitch have any menu items indicative of our specific area?

At each location, the executive chef creates nightly off-the-menu specials that are cultivated from the products directly available to them as well as what our guests at that particular store seem to be interested in at that time. Experiences like our Chef Dinners allow our chefs to connect one-on-one with our guests to not only bring them the hottest food trends but hear what they’re interested in seeing and experiencing as well. It keeps things local and it keeps us connected.

Chef, how are you influenced to make seasonal changes to the menu?

What’s more creative than for a chef to be featuring a seasonal menu multiple times a year? The idea of using products and ingredients when they are at their peak flavor, lowest price point, and most abundant is a necessity for us to continue our success in a competitive market. We spend a lot of time researching different local varieties of fish, seafood, and produce to ensure the best quality with the smallest carbon footprint. The seasonal menu changes don’t just stop with food. We are proud that our mixologists are involved in having beverages in tune with the season as well. For example, in the summer time we feature refreshing dockside lemonade and iced teas, which are produced from fresh fruits and herbs. In the winter, we are featuring a toasty hot chocolate menu as the weather cools down. The goal is to entice them to keep returning to our restaurants as we are showcasing our forward thinking and trendsetting concepts. The bottom line is that it also keeps me and our teams excited.


I see notices of frequent wine dinners. Tell us about them, especially in Annapolis.

We have recently introduced specialty theme dinners at all of our locations that we started implementing this past season. This is an opportunity for our Executive Chefs and Bar Managers to execute food and beverage pairings that showcase dishes that our chefs are inspired by. These dishes usually have a sentimental story behind it that has a deep connection that we pass onto our guests. We have a very talented team and this is their moment to show off their skills and creativity by using a variety of products and techniques. Our guests that sign up for these dinners are blown away by the quality, taste, and presentation of the pairings.


Tomato-Fennel Broth

Serves 4

  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon garlic, minced
  • 1 cup yellow onion, sliced ½-inch thick
  • 1 cup fennel, sliced ½-inch thick
  • 1/2 cup celery, ½-inch thick
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ea. ground black pepper
  • & red chili flakes
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 pound calamari-tubes & tentacles-cut ½-inch
  • 1 ounce tomato paste
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 cup marinara sauce
  • 1/2 cup bottled clam juice
  • 1 cup water

In a medium stockpot, heat the extra virgin olive oil on high heat. Add the onion, fennel, celery, salt and pepper; cook stirring occasionally until softened. Add the garlic and red chili flakes; continue to cook for 2 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and add the calamari (tubes and tentacles), stirring occasionally for 15 minutes. Add the tomato paste and oregano; cook for 2 more minutes. Add the wine and raise the heat to medium-high. Reduce the wine until there is only 1/4-cup left. Add the marinara sauce, bay leaves and clam juice. Reduce for 15 minutes. The consistency should be a little loose. Hold sauce until you are ready to use the broth.


Serves 1

If you are also making the luxurious broth, be sure to prepare that first.

  • Chive butter
  • 1 slice artisan bread- cut in half on bias
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 littleneck clams
  • 1 cup tomato fennel broth
  • 4 ounces fresh cod
  • 4 large shrimp (16/20)
  • 6 fresh mussels
  • 8 small fennel fronds
  • 1 teaspoon chopped parsley
  • 1 plate cooked pasta-held warm

First, butter the bread and toast in the oven until light golden brown. In a large sauté pan, add the oil and then add the clams. Sauté clams for 2 minutes then add the broth, cod, shrimp, and the mussels; reduce heat to medium and cover the pan. Once the mussels are opened, the rest of the seafood should be cooked through. Add everything into the pasta plate and arrange seafood neatly. Top with chopped parsley and fennel fronds. Place napkins on the left side of the rectangular plate and place pasta bowl on top. Lay the 2 pieces of bread next to the bowl and serve.

As a food writer, blogger, food stylist, Rita Calvert has partnered in writing cookbooks and developed product lines to showcase the inspiration, art and nourishment of food. In the Chesapeake Region, she is a strong advocate of local, sustainable farms.