Walk into a well-loved building and savor the aromas of garlic and spices when you arrive for a great meal at Carlton’s Italian Restaurant in Cullman, Alabama.
Location: Carlton’s Italian Restaurant, 208 3rd Avenue, SE, Cullman, Alabama
Menu: The menu at Carlton’s is decidedly Italian in its emphasis, but there are plenty of options for those who are just “not in the mood” for Italian (as if that’s possible). The Triple Salad Plate, Raspberry Spinach Salad, and the Chicken Salad Plate, for example, are popular with ladies dining together at lunchtime. Sandwiches such as Philly Steak, Turkey and Cheese, or Ham and Cheese are available for others with hearty appetites. However, the pasta dishes, pizzas, and calzones are the most frequently-ordered items offered at Carlton’s.
Focaccia Bread with Mediterranean olive oil dip and the Tomato and Garlic Bruschetta are wonderful starters to your meal. Those and several other appetizer options come to your table hot, fresh and fragrant. A logical follow-up is a Caesar Salad, a Greek Salad, or a Wedge Salad with peppery parmesan dressing.
The expected pasta dishes of spaghetti, lasagna, and manicotti are menu staples with more surprising dishes such as Chunky Maine Lobster Ravioli, Cajun Pasta or Shrimp and Conecuh Sausage Pasta. Conecuh Sausage, by the way, is a link sausage made in the small South Alabama town of Evergreen and has a distinctive smoky, hickory flavor.
Pizzas range in size from 6 inches to 16 inches and come in 10 varieties, including one with a Southern twist, Memphis Bar-B-Que Chicken Pizza. Dr. Blaylock’s Supreme, which has 10 toppings, is said to be the best seller. Calzones can be prepared using a choice of 16 different toppings, and a pizza with cauliflower crust can be ordered for those on a gluten-free diet.
The Kids Menu has family-friendly prices, and the Dessert Menu features cheesecake, shortcake, blackberry cobbler, Key lime pie and brownies.
Thoughts: The name of the restaurant came from its originator, Mr. Carlton Stafford, who opened a small cafe called Pizza Palace in 1972. In 1990, he revamped the restaurant’s concept and named it Carlton’s. The location has changed several times with the present location being in what was formerly Stewart Veterinary Clinic. The building was completely remodeled and thoughtfully restored by Southern Accents Architectural Antiques, another locally-owned business in Cullman, and ironically it is now owned by retired veterinarian, Dr. Harry Blaylock and his wife Leslie. Dr. Blaylock confesses that he has wanted to own a restaurant since he was 12 years old. He bought the business in 2009, and his two daughters, wife and ex-wife ran it until he retired full-time from his veterinary practice.
The decor is a large part of the appeal and charm of Carlton’s. Practically everywhere you look while you dine, you’ll see something that has been salvaged and repurposed from an intriguing location. The large painted braces came from the original train depot in Cullman. The floors were salvaged from a hotel in Florence, Alabama, while the ceiling came from a warehouse in Knoxville, Tennessee. The bathroom doors date back to 1905 from a commercial building in Bloomington, Indiana, and the swinging doors to the kitchen came from a restaurant in New York City. Dr. Blaylock himself might be found strolling through the tables when you visit. I’m sure he’d be happy to point out some of the other interesting design features and maybe share a funny dog or cat story from his years of veterinary practice.
Carlton’s is weathering the pandemic gracefully. Their careful attention to distancing the tables and wearing masks is evident, and the large outdoor dining patio is a huge plus. For the winter months, it is heated and enveloped in plastic for more coziness. Before the pandemic, three times more customers preferred dining in to take-out. Now those numbers are reversed. When I was there, I observed many pizza boxes leaving the kitchen, heading to the checkout counter.
Since every dish is made to order, Carlton’s is definitely not a fast food restaurant. However, the ambiance while you wait is very pleasant, and the food is wonderful. I have eaten here several times, trying a different dish each time. I’ve never been disappointed.
Price range: Appetizers range from $1.79-7.99. Salads are $5.99-10.99. Entrees are $7.99-16.99, and pizzas are $6.99-17.99. Desserts are $4.99-7.99.