Ask a cross-section of hobby members which country they least like to play and the answer would probably be Italy. Why is this? Ok so Italy has the worst record of wins; but the reason must be the lack of scope for expansion. The only obvious advantage is that it is the easiest country, to defend at the start and does not have any obvious predators.
The immediate neighbours are usually eager for non-aggression. France has its eyes on Iberia and the Low countries while Austria lives in fear of Russia and Turkey, looking longingly at the Balkan centres. Moves against Italy in 1901 are uncommon and seldom dangerous. Often they are reactions by France and Austria to suspected Italian aggression. Assuming that Italy is unlikely to be attacked in 1901, what is the best policy?
An all-out attack on France is silly. A(Ven) may get to Pie, but it takes too long to get within striking distance of Mar and Iberia with the fleet, especially as Tunis must be taken for a build. By this time France is alerted and can build and move accordingly. Furthermore, Austria or Turkey may grow rapidly at the start and begin to move towards Italy. The one occasion when an early attack on France can be expected to pay dividends is if you know that England and Germany are also planning a joint invasion in the north. Then, with France’s defences widely stretched quick rewards can be achieved with Mar and Spa almost certain gains.
An attack on Austria can be beneficial especially if Russia is ready to assist from the rear. A(Ven) can be sent to either Tyr or Tri while A(Rom) follows up into yen. If the moves are successful then Italy is in a strong position but if they have been anticipated he is left with two armies that cannot effectively combine. Another choice is to move to Pie and yen and attack no-one! With a fleet build for the gain of Tun, just sit back and await developments. Although it seems unattractive policy it does have the advantage of keeping on friendly terms with everyone until it is clear exactly what you are going to do. Offers of alliance are bound to arrive in a position like this.
One cannot discuss Italian opening strategy without mentioning the Lepanto Opening. This involves F(ION) convoying A(Apu) to Tun in 1901 then building a F(Nap) and moving F(ION)-EMS, F(Nap)-ION in Spring 1902 followed by the possibility of the convoy to Smy/Syr in Autumn 1902. The idea is to attack Turkey with Austrian help but the key to the move is the action of the Turkish F(Ank) in Spring 1901. If it goes to Con in the first move, it is likely to go to AEG in the next season and may be able to disrupt the convoy, particularly with a F(Smy) built in Autumn 1901. There is a variation called the Key Lepanto which requires great trust on Austria’s part. The basic idea remains the same but Austria allows A(Ven)-Tri in Spring 1901 on the proviso that it moves to Ser or Alb in the Autum. The advantage is that it appears to be a stab on Austria, especially if he screams loudly enough, but invariably Italy double-crosses Austria and orders the army in Tri to Bud or Vie resulting with five or six units at the beginning of Spring 1902. the big disadvantage with the Lepanto openings is that while Italy is mucking about in the east, France can be pushing two fleets into the Med which can bring all the Italians plans to naught.
On the question of alliances I would consider the Italian/Russian alliance to be one of the strongest on the board. Unless Austria is very astute (or lucky) in the face of a co-ordinated Spring 1901 attack from these two countries they can divide up all of Austria, then the Balkans and finally Turkey, assuming they have no trouble on other borders to deal with. An alliance with Austria can also be very strong but more trust than normal is needed as these countries are in the unique position of having adjacent home supply centres. A Turkish alliance invariably leads to conflict in the middle game unless they have carefully arranged, separate areas of expansion and builds agreed. Don’t write Italy off. You’ll probably survive longer than some countries.