Payne's return the highlight of Ulster's slog
Zebre 17 Ulster 40
In an ultimate 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' scenario, Ulster took maximum points from yesterday's trip to Zebre, but were far from impressive over the course of this win in Parma.
The game began as planned with quick-fire scores through Chris Henry and Ruan Pienaar, but from there it was a slog for the province, who pulled away only after Zebre dominated for over half an hour.
While Italy's flagging Six Nations campaign has drawn far more attention, their two clubs are involved in their own battle to show they belong at this level.
Zebre responded after going 14-0 down when Ulster appeared guilty of complacency, as Guglielmo Palazzani notched a try, conversion and penalty to see Zebre go in at the break only four points adrift.
Ulster were finally back in business four minutes after the restart, with Stuart Olding going over after running against the grain in a well-worked Ulster move.
With Zebre's resistance cracked, the bonus point was not long coming from top-scorer Jacob Stockdale's seventh of the year after another scrum on the five metre line. Even with the job done, Ulster failed to impress in the final quarter and Mattia Bellini's try made it 28-17.
Tries from Robbie Diack and David Busby added some gloss, while the one bright point was the return of Jared Payne from a long lay-off.
Zebre: D Berryman (C Engelbrecht 58); M Bellini, T Boni, M Pratichetti (T Castello 50), L Greeff (S Balocchi 64); S Bordoli, G Palazzani; B Postiglioni (A De Marchi 63), O Fabiani (S Tobias 76), G Roan (B le Roux 48); G Koegelenberg, V Bernabo (J Furno 61); D Bergamin (D Fragnito 67), J Meyer, F Ruzza
Ulster: J Stockdale; T Bowe, L Marshall (J Payne 60), S Olding, C Piutau (D Busby75); P Nelson (P Marshall 72), R Pienaar; A Warwick (C Black 64), R Herring (J Andrew 55), W Herbst (R Lutton 33); R Diack, A O'Connor (K Treadwell 72); C Ross, C Henry (R Wilson 60), S Reidy
Ref: N Owens (Wales)