Manuel Locatelli sold Donnarumma short with a back-pass, almost allowing Whyte to nip in, and after Italy struggled to clear the ball a cross back into the box found Smith, who could not get enough power on his shot as he tried to guide a first-time effort.
Emboldened, Baraclough sent on Shayne Lavery for Whyte in an attacking substitution and the Linfield forward was straight into the action, almost played in by Davis before Smith’s follow-up effort was deflected over.
They were through again in the 73rd minute when Stuart Dallas broke free down the left and tried to feed Saville, but the Middlesbrough man ran into traffic in the box as another opening went begging.
The best chance came in the 88th minute courtesy of another mix-up in the Italian defence, but Paddy McNair blazed over from Davis’ cross.
Though they did not get their reward on the night, as opening defeats go, this is one that Northern Ireland can build on when Bulgaria visit Windsor Park on Wednesday.