Steve Borthwick’s side trailed 10-0 then 17-8 in an alarming first-half showing at the Stadio Olimpico, as Jamie George’s first match as captain clunked rather than clicked into gear.
England never really found their spark, and leaked two poor tries from Alessandro Garbisi and Tommaso Allan.
But George Ford booted 17 points, and Elliot Daly and Alex Mitchell claimed vital scores. Just when England looked to go for the jugular in added time at the end of the clash though, Italy popped up again with other ideas.
Monty Ioane evaded everyone, including a despairing dive from debutant Fraser Dingwall, and raced home untouched for a try in the fifth minute of added time.
Former Harlequins playmaker Allan then stepped up and booted the conversion – and what should have been at least a 10-point win for England was cut right down to size to three.
England will at least leave the Eternal City with a win, but they cannot be happy.
"If this is BorthBall v2.0, then the new operating system needs a slew of updates – and fast"
In the land of ageless civilisations and reinventions, it was the hosts who will be by far the happier with their latest iteration.
New boss Gonzalo Quesada’s men were all ingenuity and incision, catching England cold on a number of occasions, not least for their first two tries.
England in contrast seemed harassed and almost half-asleep at times, more misalignment and misfortune than muscular and man-on-man.
Borthwick will have plenty to scratch his head about and pick the brains of his new coaching team on too.
If this is BorthBall v2.0, then the new operating system needs a slew of updates – and fast. England can put the required patches in place, but there will certainly be a lot of code to be written yet.
The host city of this clash was obviously not built in the proverbial day of course, and England will need time to bring their new approach to bear. Time always has to be balanced with quick progress, however.
Jump forward significantly next week against Wales at Twickenham, and this victory can be placed into far stronger context. Stumble sideways instead though, and England will already be staring down the barrel of a new set of problems.
England’s start was disastrous. Sloppy, uncalibrated defending, allied to clumsy, sluggish attacking. Italy plundered full advantage.
Allan’s early penalty gave way to Alessandro Garbisi’s try, with the scrum-half screaming in delight after crossing the whitewash.
Lorenzo Cannone fired through an alarmingly porous England midfield, after Ollie Chessum had flown out of the line, to leave Joe Marler unable to close the chasm.
England took almost 15 minutes to breach Italy’s 22, such was the extent of their slow start. When the visitors finally found a foothold, too often they were all too easily thwarted by the Azzurri.
Tommy Freeman finally found an outside line in midfield to represent a tangible attack that came good.
His pop out of the tackle allowed fellow wing Daly the chance to scamper home, and England were back in the game.
From 10-0 down after almost as many minutes, England trailed by just two, thanks to that Daly try and an earlier Ford penalty.
Ford could not convert the try, and England could not turn that breakthrough into a reversal of fortunes either.
Italy struck again for a second try, just shy of the half hour, in a concerningly facile but admittedly lovely looking effort.
Ignacio Brex’s deft pulled-back pass created a straightforward loop that left England at sixes and sevens.
Allan was the ultimate beneficiary, racing through acres of space for a smart try that he then converted for Italy to lead 17-8.
Two Ford penalties left England trailing 17-14 at the break, with the Red Rose men unable to breach Italy’s line for a second time before the interval.
Wing Daly joining a lineout maul with relish came to encapsulate England’s continued reliance on the nuts and bolts over the thrills and spills.
A classic half-time rollicking must have ensued, because when the teams returned, England were far more fixed on the task.
Mitchell scampered home for England’s second try, alert enough to realise that he had not been held despite being felled to the ground.
The scrum-half dotted down, Ford converted, and with 44 minutes on the clock, England led for the first time in the match, at 21-17.
A Ford penalty from an Italy scrum infringement allowed England to stretch their lead to seven points heading into the final quarter.
Allan missed an eminently kickable penalty shot after Italy caught England napping with an incisive blindside break from a scrum.
Ford slotted his fifth and final penalty to stretch England’s lead to 27-17, before making way for Fin Smith to win his first cap.
Immanuel Feyi-Waboso and Chandler Cunningham-South came on for their debuts too, and the latter quickly pulled off a try-saving tackle on Federico Mori.
Daly was sin-binned with five minutes to play for a trip on Tommaso Menoncello, but then Italy lost captain Michele Lamaro to a yellow card too.
England were smelling blood, but in a flash they slipped from Italy’s 22 to their own – and then Ioane closed out the clash with that stunning score.
Italy’s fans almost celebrated that try as a match-winner. England will look back with frustration on many elements of this clash, but at least they claimed the win.