UDINE - Inter fell behind to an early goal at the Stadio Friuli, but as has happened so often this season José Mourinho's players overwhelmed their opponents with a brilliant fightback.
Simone Pepe put the home side ahead within two minutes, Mario Balotelli equalised in the seventh, and Maicon and Diego Milito finished off well-worked moves to put the Nerazzurri in command at the break.
Antonio Di Natale fired in a penalty kick early in the second half to set up an exciting last forty minutes.
The win keeps Inter four points clear at the top of the table as second-placed AC Milan beat Atalanta 3-1 at home to remain hot on the heels of their city rivals.
Deprived of Samuel, Cordoba, Muntari and Cambiasso, José Mourinho resolved his suspension crisis by shifting Thiago Motta into a central defensive role alongside Lucio, and handing Mariga his first start for Inter alongside Stankovic in holding midfield positions with Balotelli, Sneijder and Pandev behind Milito up front.
The Italian champions barely had time to settle when Pepe latched onto Di Natale's through ball from Cuadrado's square pass and slotted past Julio Cesar for Udinese's shock opener.
Their lead lasted all of five minutes. Maicon held off three opponents before squaring to Balotelli whose 20-yard blockbuster gave Handanovic no chance.
Some brilliant approach play saw the Nerazzurri rewarded in the 21st minute when Milito crossed to Pandev and the Macedonian played first time into the path of Maicon who almost broke the net with a rocket volley that went in off the underside of the bar.
In added time at the end of the first half Sneijder picked out Balotelli in space on the left and the Italian put his inch-perfect inswinging cross onto the head of Milito who sent a glancing header beyond the reach of Handanovic to give Inter a two-goal cushion with his 18th of the season.
The Bianconeri started the second half as they had begun the first as Milito's rival for the Serie A top scorer title Di Natale saw his penalty kick go in off the post in the 51st minute after Balotelli handled his free kick in the area - Inler having his headed goal from the rebound disallowed as Bergonzi pointed directly to the spot.
Sanchez headed straight at Julio Cesar from a corner, Pepe sent his left-wing curling shot just over and Cuadrado wasted a close-range chance as the home side were left rueing missed opportunities.
Inter came closest to restoring their two goal-lead when Handanovic made a crucial one-handed save from Maicon's right-wing cross-shot with Pandev ready to poach at the far post.
Pivotal to Udinese's attacking play throughout, Pepe had another chance for a late equaliser in stoppage time but Julio Cesar got down to make the save. The ball just wouldn't go in for the Bianconeri as Inler saw his deflected shot in the dying seconds come back off the crossbar.
Udinese 2-3 Inter (HT: 1-3)
Scorers: Pepe 2, Balotelli 7, Maicon 21, Milito 45+1, Di Natale (pen) 52.
Udinese: 22 Handanovic; 2 Zapata, 13 Coda, 24 Lukovic; 4 Cuadrado, 88 Inler, 14 Sammarco (27 Geijo 79), 26 Pasquale (20 Asamoah 64); 7 Pepe, 10 Di Natale, 11 Sanchez.
Subs not used: 1 Rafael, 19 Badu, 32 Ferronetti, 80 Domizzi, 84 Lodi.
Coach: Pasquale Marino.
Inter: 12 Julio Cesar; 13 Maicon, 6 Lucio, 8 Thiago Motta, 4 Zanetti; 5 Stankovic, 17 Mariga; 45 Balotelli (23 Materazzi 82), 10 Sneijder (15 Krhin 90+1), 27 Pandev (9 Eto'o 72); 22 Milito.
Subs not used: 1 Toldo, 7 Quaresma, 29 Donati, 89 Arnautovic.
Coach: José Mourinho.
Referee: Mauro Bergonzi (Genoa).
Booked: Coda 8, Zanetti 39, Sammarco 67, Balotelli 66, Stankovic 90+2, Asamoah 90+3.