I wonder if it is temperature or the radiant heat from the wood coals. Long ago my uncles told me that the best pizza they ever had in NYC was from coal fired ovens. By the time I came along there might have been a couple left. The guy who was left in Coney Island with a coal oven made what we now know as a Margherita, but then it was just another pizza. He dealt out slices of fresh mozz. There were also places that had giant balls of mozz in glass display refrigerators. They did not buy pregrated plastic packages. I don't know where that cheese came from. The balls had to have been 3 or 4 lbs each. They were considerably bigger than soft balls, maybe 2X, and not uniform in size. One of the best pizza makers I knew told me he used only "real" cheese, not the cheap stuff. He used those giant balls. I don't know what he meant by that, but I never saw those balls in the store. They must have been made by a small local maker.
Natural leaven is a big deal, but I don't know if a home baker can manage it well. I for sure can't.
My best pizza was made with a combination of aged and fresh cheese. Flour is the same year round. The flesh of garden tomatoes and home grown basil was the difference, because my winter and summer pizza are very different. A commercial pizzeria can't turn out high volume with these ingredients even if they were not seasonal. They have to rely on canned tomatoes of one sort or another. Prepping fresh tomatoes takes a long time. I also make my own sausage. It is better than store bought. It took years to figure it out. It also takes a long time and would be cost prohibitive for a pizzeria.
Although I havenít tasted any other pizza from a pizzeria with a wood-fire oven, I had been waiting for awhile to even taste any pizza from any wood-fire oven. My pizza making buddy Steve (Ev), built his own wood fired oven this past summer, brick by brick. He invited me to his home to bake some of my formulas (with starters) and some of his formulas (some with cake yeast) in his wood fired oven. That is what opened my taste buds and eyes to how a wood-fired oven bakes and makes a pizza taste different. I had used the one same formula I was experimenting with at market. If you are interested in seeing the pizzas baked in the wood-fire oven, in how different they look, this is the thread. http://www.pizzamaking.com/forum/index.php/topic,11887.0.html
The pizzas baked in Steveís WFO were the best pizzas I tasted until Kesteís. Steve was kind enough to invite me different times to his home to bring some of my doughs along to try, but different times I was busy. Steve showed me some pictures of pizzas baked in his wood-fired oven with cake yeast, and although I couldnít taste them, they sure looked delicious. He is learning how to manage his WFO and also trying different formulas.
I visited Coney Island about 7 years ago, but I wasnít making pizzas then. If I would have been making pizzas, I sure would have tried Totonnoís http://www.totonnos.com/Aboutus.html
There was a fire at Totonno's in March 2009 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/16/nyregion/16pizza.html
If I ever visit Coney Island again, I want to taste Totonnoís pies. Since you have lived in NY, I am sure you already know how long it takes on the train (subway) to get from Manhattan to Coney Island. It takes a long while in my opinion. New York City is really big, as you already know. I wonder if Totonnoís is where your uncle ate some of his best pies.
I also think many pizza places in NYC went downhill over the years. Your posting about the large mozzarella balls in glass display refrigerators is interesting.
I donít know either if mozzarella balls then were made in NYC or shipped from Italy. Kesteís cheese was also the best cheeses I have ever tasted on any pizza. The two pizzas I purchased had two different kinds of cheeses on the different pies. I donít buy imported cheese. I have only tried Grande balls of mozzarella, that were purchased near where I live. They were about 13.00 for a big tub of smaller balls.
With all your experience in making pizzas, natural leavening isnít really a big deal. I was helped though this process here on the forum, by many other members. The only thing with natural leavening is letting the dough bulk ferment, then you can cold ferment and if the dough still isnít ready, you can let the dough sit at room temperature again, until it looks ready to use. This is called a 3 stage protocol. You can even let the naturally leavened dough sit at room temperatures until it is ready to bake. It does take some understanding, but I am sure you could use starters in a dough, if you want to try them. I could send you some dried out starters if you want to try to use them. I will help you though the process, if you want. Using natural leavening is the way pizzas were made many years ago, before commercial yeast, even in Italy.
The best pizzerias do use high quality ingredients, which then makes their pizzas better.
I know you use your fresh from the garden vegetables on your pizzas in the summertime. I also use my fresh vegetables at home in the summertime. I also agree that fresh vegetables can make some of best tasting sauces in my opinion. I have frozen many containers of Lesís sauce, that I made this summer. Lesís sauce is better in my opinion than any other fresh sauce I can make in the summer. Even out of the freezer Lesís sauce is still very good.
I was reading this blog, posted by Caleb http://pizzicletta.blogspot.com/2010/11/balance-of-great-neapolitan-pizza.html
If you or anyone else is interested in reading though his blog of his trip on bicycle though Italy, trying different kinds of pizzas and even being at the plant where they mill Caputo flours, http://pizzicletta.blogspot.com/2010/10/my-visit-to-molino-caputo.html
anyone can see how he describes eating pizzas he tried. I think to be able to try some the pizzas made in Italy would really be interesting. In my opinion Caleb does a great job in explaining how pizzas are in Italy. Caleb is finished with his trip now, but I find how he explained everything in detail, is mouth watering.
Sorry this post is so long.