Italy is the most challenging country on the board to play if you asked me. Of course "Challenging" is just a nice way of saying that Italy is nearly impossible to win with. But it can be done.
Basically, Italy has two logical openings--Attack Austria or Attack France. The former, attacking east, holds the possibility of a quick center or two. The latter offers no such reward, but is the better choice of the two.
Attacking Austria means that 9 times out of 10, you have allied with russia and/or Turkey. The problem with this is that by helping unseat Austria, you have assured yourself that Turkey and/or Russia will gobble you up next. Better to keep Austria alive and acting as a buffer between you and the eastern hordes.
Now, if you can arrange for Turkey and Russia to start fighting as soon as you have taken Trieste and Vienna, then be my guest--attack the Habsburg. But we all know what a natural alliance Russia an Turkey can make--it's a tall order to stab Austria while fostering ill-will among the white and yellow pieces. They will suck into the vacuum you have created by destroying Austria, and take you on next. They will have the advantage.
Chances are, you will throw Germnay into a tizzy by attacking his natural neutral friend. This can mean a stab at you, or worse yet, he will collapse under the weight of Russia, who is growing fat in places like Budapest and Rumania. A good Germna knows that units popping up in Warsaw to attack Austrai often end up in places like Silesia.
If you must move East, be ready to fight the Turk or his Russian pal. Austria will collapse quickly, and you will get a brief victory. unless you are planning well-ahead, it will also be only a short time before you find yourself devoured by Turkey and/or Russia. What can you do to make an eastern campaign successful? First of all, hope that someone in the West (usually England) is stuffing the Russian in Scandanavia. Step 2: Ally with Russia or Turkey against the other early on. I prefer Russia to Turkey. Infact, I'd say this is definitely your best chance at alliance. Turkey and Austria have such animosity in most games, you and Russia might make quick work of them The best way to work this is for you to hammer at Turkey while Russia takes on Austira. If you can befriend one of them long enough to hear some plans...voila! The attack might work. Of course, Russia then has the advantage of momentum and better situated units in most scenarios, but hey...I advocate a Western campaign anyway.
In the long run, going WEST is BEST--
This is because it's clear that an attack on Austrai is a risky thing after a few quick builds. Be patient. Take your time. Attack France. By hitting France, you wont bring Germany and or England racing to your door step. In fact, the Western end of the Med is very defensible. Your three targets are Spain. Portugal, and Marseilles. In my opinon, a good French player has to leave himself open to you at some point. by playing coy, you can lull him inot sleep and them POW! you stab into hte western Med and the Gulf of Lyon. The attack can be parried, of course, but what Germany won't come to you in glee when you hit France? Same for England. You will have one or two friends as soon as you hit La Marseilles with both fists.
The French attack is slow and your units will need to hold spaces far from home. You will be open to Turkish or Austrian assaults (They will be fighting each other hopefully. By helping topple France, one of the Western Powers will grow , giving Russia some pause.
You can see that there aren't any great options in your Italian opeinings. You must decide which side of the board you are goinplay on, while being careful to not over commit unless the other side was the better choice. Or maybe you feel your only chance is to roll the dice and overcommit. If you do, Roll on the West, unless your mom is playing Russia. In that case, hang your hat on the Czar and see how far the ride takes you.
Now, what about Lepanto---
Fool's Gold. Only attack Turkey at the start if Russia and Turkey ally to assault Austria. Then, you have no choice--If Austria falls, wo will you. So you have to attack Turkey. Those pieces may look yellow, but there is no pot of gold for you in Smyrna. It takes a long time to get in a good positoin over there, all the while reaching over Austria for centers he or Russia will just take away later. Only attack Turkey in self defense. You can attack her later, and you will have to know how to do it--so practice a Leponto from time to time, but don't commit to it right away.
Much the same for Germany--Don't commit to an attack right away. It is too difficult for most Italians to contemplate--All you will get is Munich, the hardes pice of territory on the whole damn board to hold by a foreign power. Attack Germany later if needed, in places like France.
So far, I've concluded that Italy can attack east and trade quick gains for quick death, or attack west for slow gains and a slim possibility that you can win that way. Attacking Germany or Turkey at the start of the game is silly in most cases.
The best early game strategy I can recommend for Italy is to hang around and wait for the best opening--then strike with all vigor possible. Give a little more weight to an attack west than east, all things being equal. Use your considerable diplomatic clout--you don't have a great tactical position, but you are in a key spot diplomatically.
At mid-game, Italy might find itself having to deal with England around Iberia, or Germany in France. Obviously, you will want to play them off of each other, allying with one over the other or flip-flopping between the two, to try and make the most ground. Be careful about going against Germany with England--Germany might be in a good spot against Russia or some other eastern Power, and you wouldn't want him to collapse, allowing Austria or Russia or Turkey to invade you while you are busy in the west. Favor Germany over England, but not by much.
Another common mid-game headache for the Italian is turkey. He might have come out on top in the east and now finds himself pushing into your waters. You should always encourage Turkey to build armies (good god, man...Did you see that russia just built an army? and Austrai too! Better keep up--that kind of stuff) hopefully, someone will be able to aid you against the turk--if not he will whip you more than you whip him. he just has a better position, with no one behind him.
Always open to the Ionian--
Always. You've got nothing to gain by opening to Tyrrhenian. You might convoy an army into Tunis and have a one-turn jump on getting into the Gulf of Lyon, but you might as well announce to the world you are attacking France. You Don't want to commit that first year. Not that hard. ionian openings give you flexibility you don't have in Tyr. Sea. You should also open to Apulia as a rule of thumb--to support Venice if needed and to convoy to Tunis or Greece if needed. If things with Turkey are going comfortably--be nice and put the fleet in Tunis (then popping out to Western med possibly)--if not, it's clear that you are not going to let him roll all over Austria.
Never go to Piedmont--
Never. Attacking france is hard enough. Why would you want to tell him what you are doing? He will get involved with England and Germany, affording you a better chance. Openings to Piedmont are great for Germany and England, awful for Italy.
Your pal the Archduke--
What Austrian in his right mind would attack you and invite a suden death at the hands of Russia and turkey? Probably a few, but you still should look for a pact with Austria I have only been turned down once--and Austria really regretted it. Let Austria be the big shot in the east: two good things will happen. One, you will have a freee hand to attack France and then charge into the MAO, wreaking every plan England ever had. Two: With Turkey and/or Russia weakened by a strong Austrian, you might be able to attack east and not have it come back in your face like pie. Be assured that Austria will come after you when he is in control in the east. If you time your stab right, you might come up aces, especially if you can grab Greece.
What can you say? If you hope to do anything in the game, at some point you have to control Greece--gateway to the Balkans (well, Trieste too). But just be damn patient.
You'll win the game by conrolling the left, right, or bottom sided of the board. 99% of the time you'll win by taking the bottom of the board. I recommend shoring up the west, plugging that gap at Gibraltar, and then turning on those bickering eastern neighbors with terrible vengeance, all while insuring that no one power gets too huge in the West. Now you see why everyone, including me, hates to be Italy.