TURIN — As surprising as it may sound, what we order in restaurants has very little to do with what we actually want. It's all about the menu. A recent study, conducted by Cornell University researchers on more than 200 menus and 300 meals in New York, shows that only two things really dictate what we order when dining out: the dish we see written, and the way we imagine it.

Adjectives are key

Think about meals labeled "Pesto Pasta," or "Mixed Salad." They hardly make our taste buds tingle or send our imaginations soaring. Instead, they make us think, "I could make that myself." And even when these dishes come to our table, our expectations are so low that it affects their taste.

But if the menu says "Spaghetti di Gragnano, datterini mussels and Sicilian-flavored pesto," or "A crunchy salad with Pachino cherry tomatoes, topped with a warm vinaigrette," then it's a whole different story. 

Improving a plate's description can improve its sales by up to 30%, the study shows. One in 10 customers say that dishes that are described more completely and with a flourish also taste better — and they're willing to pay more for them. 

Exotic and nostalgic allusions

Geographic references on menus are very important. They demonstrate that the kitchen is attentive to details and thoughtful about choosing high-quality ingredients

The more exotic the dish name, the better. "Smooth," "crisp," "fresh," "fragrant." Any reference to touch, taste and texture will always tickle our imagination and appetite. You can also be sure that sales are driven by nostalgic allusions such as "grandmother's recipe," "old-fashioned" and "homemade."

Visual tricks 

Cornell University researchers also looked at the way menus are presented. We tend to choose dishes that are displayed at the very top, or very bottom, 25% more often. Our eyes travel from the top left to the bottom right, much like the way we read a newspaper.  

Font and colors also matter. Anything written in green, or dishes showcased in font and text boxes, are ordered 40% more often than other plates. Restaurants should avoid menus that have ruined, stained or torn covers because they give consumers the impression that the restaurant is not high quality.

At the same time, a separate dessert menu works as an incentive to make diners order again.  

Mind the digits 

The last, tricky part of the dining experience is of course the looming bill. If restaurants want to put clients at ease about cost, prices should only have two digits, never four. Currency symbols are also best omitted because leaving them off makes customers think less about what they'll spend as they order their meals. 

Have you also noticed the very expensive dishes on the menu? They're there for a good reason — to trick people into ordering other plates. 

The study shows there are many ways to capture the imaginations of diners. But the best way for customers to understand what's available? Ask the waiter.