Italy 16 England 31
England centre Mike Tindall believes Italy are close to claiming a major scalp after the relieved world champions u ltimately emerged unscathed from an intense encounter at Stadio Flaminio.
It briefly looked as though England might become the fall-guys, trailing 9-7 early in a second half they later transformed by claiming three converted tries.
England's three previous Rome visits had produced an average scoreline of 51-10 in their favour, but calculators were not required on this occasion as Italy pressed all the right buttons to pose serious problems for Tindall and company.
England, though, remain on course for the RBS Six Nations Championship title - and a possible first Grand Slam since 2003 - after ending their two-year run of away defeats.
England had lost six games in a row on the road and while it was not pretty and England hooker Steve Thompson's pre-match prediction of "an 80-minute battle" proved accurate, the visitors took their chances when they eventually gained control in the second half.
It was a long time in coming and England could not even begin to think about relaxing until fly-half general Charlie Hodgson sprinted over for a try that he also converted to open a 17-9 lead.
That 55th-minute effort left Italy reeling and England sealed the victory with further converted touchdowns from wing Mark Cueto - his 11th in 13 Tests - and substitute James Simpson-Daniel.
Tindall set the ball rolling with England's opening try on 25 minutes, but Italy absorbed everything their opponents could throw at them and trailed only 7-6 at the break. A Ramiro Pez dropped goal edged the hosts 9-7 ahead two minutes after half-time.
"Italy, with all the players they've got in the French Championship and the Heineken Cup, are a good-quality outfit," said Gloucester centre Tindall.
"I don't think you will see anyone smash them and I think you are going to see a big scalp for them before too much longer."
England head coach Andy Robinson hailed Tindall's attacking display as his best in an England shirt and there were further encouraging signs of his often-criticised midfield partnership with Jamie Noon taking definite shape.
"I said it would take a little time to settle in and it is, really," added Tindall. "I didn't get Jamie into the game as much as I wanted to but, with Italy's defence, it is very hard to do that.
"Jamie and myself are trying to get better. We are still a long way off, but it is improving and it is always nice to get a try.
"It is the best feeling in the world when you call a move and it works like that and there was a big hole, to go through and score. This team is growing and in the second half, we started off-loading a lot more. When you're able to do that, it just makes the game a lot easier."
Italy's highly-rated forwards gave as good as they got against the revered England pack and, in the end, it was the world champions' extra bit of class behind the scrum that under-pinned a sixth win from seven starts during Martin Corry's leader-ship reign.
Italian fly-half Pez dropped two goals and kicked a penalty while centre Mirco Bergamasco claimed a late consolation try that Pez improved but Pez's opposite number, Hodgson, had another impressive outing and contributed 16 points to England's cause.
England will play much better than this during the Robinson regime and greater challenges lie ahead in this Six Nations tournament, notably their clash against France in Paris on March 12, but Corry's men were just grateful to leave the Eternal City with maximum points.
"It got a bit stodgy in the first half in terms of the slow ball we were playing with," said Robinson.
"But as soon as we started to move the ball and we started to play a little bit looser and quicker in the second half, we generated effective rhythm and that was the key to the game.
"In the first half, we didn't find rhythm, Italy knocked us over and we gave away some easy penalties which allowed them to get momentum.
"I know people will be disappointed with our first half, but this Italian team is difficult to break down and we knew we would have to work hard."
Nobody committed themselves more to the England cause than flanker Joe Worsley, who enjoyed one of his most effective Test displays before making way for Lawrence Dallaglio 15 minutes from time.
As against Wales a week earlier, the arrival of Dallaglio and his fellow World Cup-winner Matt Dawson had a telling effect on England's performance and it will be a major surprise if Dawson does not start, instead of current first-choice scrum-half Harry Ellis, against Scotland in a fortnight's time.
Robinson also had words of praise for Tindall, adding: "I thought it was his best attacking game for England.
"He was a threat with the ball constantly but he also gave a great pass to Ben Cohen for Mark Cueto's try. He is not just a crash-ball centre and that is what we've looked at and are trying to develop and [coach] Dean Ryan is doing the same with him at Gloucester.
"The one thing about Mike is he is a hard worker and a very honest player. You can see it defensively with his kicking and his whole game."