Ivory Towers: Not a matter of taste

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The Independent Culture
WILL your spaghetti bolognaise taste any better in a restaurant if the walls are draped with Italian flags and it appears as spaghetti alla bolognese on the menu? According to recent research, the answer is yes, although - oddly enough - a plated hors-d'oeuvre is more likely to be assessed as ethnic Italian food than an antipasti misti.

These results are reported in the journal Appetite, in a paper entitled: 'Effects of adding an Italian theme to a restaurant on the perceived ethnicity, acceptability and selection of foods' (by Rick Bell, Herbert Meiselman, Barry Pierson and William Reeve), describing a four-day study conducted in a Bournemouth restaurant, the Grill Room.

In its natural state, the restaurant is a 'large, rectangular, neutral-coloured, carpeted room', open to the public, although on the campus of Bournemouth University. For the third and fourth days of the study, however, the white tablecloths were replaced by a red-and-white chequered pattern, Italian flags were hung across walls and ceiling, and wine bottles were placed on the tables, Italian posters on the walls, and the menu was translated into Italian.

Among other things, the green salad tossed in olive oil and lemon became insalata verde alla siciliana, and the chicken with green peppers and tomata was romanticised as pollo alla cacciatora. In order to minimise the possible effect of language difficulties, samples of the main dishes were placed on a display cart to aid choice.

When customers had finished their meals, they were asked to complete brief questionnaires designed to measure the 'perceived ethnicity' of the various courses. 'How British was your starter?' is cited as a typical question in this section.

'Hedonic responses also were collected for each component of the meal, using a nine-point scale anchored semantically on the numbers 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9.' In other words, they were asked how much they liked the food.

Results were analysed for each menu item. 'On Italian theme days, perceived Italian ratings increased for all entrees except chicken, and the increases were statistically significant for spaghetti bolognaise, macaroni cheese, trout and veal. Oddly, the addition of an Italian theme raised the perceived British ethnicity response for spaghetti bolognaise.

''This effect could be attributed to the fact that the name 'bolognaise' is perceived by many British customers as being a British item, and when the name was used in the Italian condition, surrounded by obviously Italian-sounding names on the rest of the menu, the familiarity of the item was exaggerated, and the British response increased.' The effect for veal, they say, is more difficult to explain, with the scaloppine di vitello con salsa di funghi perceived as more British than the escalope of veal with mushroom sauce.

The Italian theme did, however, make people more likely to eat pasta and less likely to eat fish. But on the whole, their enjoyment of the meal was much the same.