Fourteen points from the boot of Paddy Jackson helped Ulster overcome a spirited Zebre side 19-11 at Stade XXV Aprile on Saturday.
It was the emerging Italian franchise that made the superior start, their experienced internationals driving hard at the Ulster defence in the first minute.
But the visiting rearguard held firm, and cleared their lines superbly through fine counter-rucking from Roger Wilson.
The game was rather fractured in the first five minutes, with both sides struggling to retain possession. It was Zebre who opened proceedings on 10 minutes through the boot of Gonzalo Garcia, capitalising on good work by his front-row who forced their opponents into collapsing the scrum; making it 3-0 to the Italians.
But Ulster responded purposefully and marched up field, with the hosts conceding a penalty in kickable range. Paddy Jackson duly slotted the kick on the 12-minute mark to level the scores at 3-3.
Ulster's resistance continued to look ragged, however, and the evergreen Mauro Bergamasco placed the Irish side's defence firmly on the back foot, deservedly allowing Garcia to restore Zebre's lead with a second penalty on 16 minutes.
The visitors began to string some phases together thereafter, and a neat interchange involving Jackson and the impressive Cave nearly saw Wilson barge over for a try.
The Irishmen, by now, had injected some fluidity and structure into their game and were stretching their hosts. The increase in intensity paid dividends on 23 minutes when Jackson restored Ulster to level terms.
And the visitors ignited the contest on 27 minutes when a neat switch between Jackson and Craig Gilroy saw centre Cave gallop under the posts. Jackson converted to make it 6-13.
The Irishmen were now less passive in defence then they had been earlier in the encounter, preventing big Italian forwards like Bergamasco and Bortolami from getting over the gain line. By half time, it seemed that Ulster had recovered from their early jitters, and were beginning to wear the home side down.
Akin to the first, it was Zebre who made the better start to the second period with the powerful wing Venditti exerting pressure on the visitors. But it was Jackson who increased Ulster's lead on 46 minutes to make it 6-16. And the fly-half further added to his tally on 49 minutes when he kicked a penalty following a period of concerted pressure from the Ravenhill men.
Home full-back Trevisan gave his side renewed hope on 53 minutes when he evaded a lax Ulster defence to score. But replacement Luciano Orquera missed the conversion to make it 11-19. Jackson had a gilt-edged chance to extend Ulster's lead on 66 minutes, but missed the relatively simple kick.
Zebre tried manfully to close the gap further, but were unable to infuse their attack with any real creativity. Ulster held on, therefore, to secure an essential but uninspiring win. It was a disappointing end for a brave Zebre side, but Ulster will certainly need improve ahead of the sterner challenges awaiting them.
Pens: Garcia 2
Pens: Jackson 4
Zebre: 15 Ruggero Trevisan, 14 Leonardo Sarto, 13 Kameli Ratuvou, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Giovanbattista Venditti, 10 Tommaso Iannone, 9 Brendon Leonard, 8 Samuela Vunisa, 7 Nicola Cattina, 6 Mauro Bergamasco, 5 Marco Bortolami (c), 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 David Ryan, 2 Tommaso D'Apice, 1 Matias Aguero
Replacements: 16 Andrea Manici, 17 Salvatore Perugini, 18 Luciano Leibson, 19 Emiliano Caffini, 20 Filippo Cristiano, 21 Alberto Chilloni, 22 Luciano Orquera, 23 Roberto Quartaroli
Ulster: 15 R Andrew, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Luke Marshall, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Paul Marshall, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Mike McComish, 6 Robbie Diack (c), 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Neil McComb, 3 John Afoa, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Tom Court
Replacements: 16 Niall Annett, 17 Callum Black, 18 Declan Fitzpatrick, 19 Craig Joyce, 20 Sean Doyle, 21 Michael Heaney, 22 James McKinney, 23 Michael Allen.
Referee: Andrew McMenemy (Scotland)
by Rory McGimpsey