Ulster claimed their third consecutive Guinness Pro12 bonus-point victory this afternoon in Parma, putting six tries past bottom-placed Zebre in an encounter which, despite the gulf on the scoreboard, Les Kiss's men far from had all their own way.
Bagging two tries through Chris Henry and Ruan Pienaar in the first 15 minutes, the Ulstermen threatened to run away with the match early on, but a spirited Zebre second-quarter comeback brought the Italians to within four points before second half tries from Stuart Olding, Jacob Stockdale, Robbie Diack and debutant David Busby put the visitors out of sight.
The province remain in fifth place in the standings now on 48 points, five adrift of fourth-placed Scarlets but with a game in hand - the rearranged fixture against today's opponents at Kingspan Stadium in two weeks' time.
Heavy rotation within the Ulster squad brought nine changes from last week's victorious starting XV, with blindside flanker Henry and Number Eight Sean Reidy the only two forwards retaining their places.
An all-new front five of props Andrew Warwick and Wiehahn Herbst, hooker and captain Rob Herring, and the second row partnership of Diack and Alan O'Connor, lined up ahead of Clive Ross, Henry and Reidy at the base of the scrum, with Marcell Coetzee a late withdrawal through illness.
Stockdale, author of two tries as replacement wing against Glasgow, started at full-back with Tommy Bowe - running out for his 150th Ulster cap - and Charles Piutau on the wings, while Olding replaced Darren Cave at centre alongside Luke Marshall. The half-back pairing of Peter Nelson and Pienaar, enjoying a 100% win record together to date, ran out at 10 and nine respectively for the third consecutive match.
A welcome returnee to the bench was Jared Payne, out since November due to a kidney injury sustained on Ireland duty, joined by Academy prospect Busby hoping to earn his first cap.
Under fine Parmesan sunshine Ulster took five minutes to click into gear, a cohesive rolling maul getting Henry over the line with Pienaar adding the extras from out wide.
Zebre, their squad severely depleted with more than half a team away on Six Nations duty, were overwhelmed again 10 minutes later when a neat offload from Bowe to Piutau on half-way set the Kiwi on his way down the left wing, eventually cutting inside and picking out Pienaar for a clear run to the line.
Italian scrum-half Guglielmo Palazzani snuck in for a surprise score on 17 minutes later thanks to some strong scrummaging from the hosts, and only a last-minute interception from Stockdale prevented Matteo Pratichetti from adding to the tally as Ulster struggled to re-establish their dominance on the game.
Yet more Zebre pressure as the half wore on kept Ulster pinned back in their own half for most of the second quarter, and with the penalty count ramping up Palazzani's kick brought his side to within four points.
The concession spurred Ulster back into life, Piutau again threatening down the left before being unceremoniously dumped into touch by his opposite number Lloyd Greeff, and although a severe overthrow at the lineout put the Italians straight back into danger, stout defence kept the score static until the break.
Half-Time Score Zebre 10 Ulster 14
Buoyed by self-belief after their impressive second quarter comeback, Zebre started the second period much in the same vein, with the visitors frustrated by multiple knock-ons when they did get their hands on the ball. The tide turned on 45 minutes however, as Olding's upper body strength carried him through two tackles from Bowe's pass off the back of a scrum for the third try.
The bonus point score came five minutes later, Stockdale touching down after Pienaar had fished the ball out of a maul, but the Italians, undeterred, capitalised on a missed tackle from Marshall just before the hour to ground their second try, Mattia Bellini the grateful recipient after Tommaso Castello's break.
With Payne back in action for the final quarter Ulster pressed on in the quest for further scores, Diack touching down in the corner on 70 minutes after a patient Ulster build-up and killer footwork from Piutau to eliminate the Italians' last two defenders.
Busby entered the fray for the final five minutes, just enough time to make his mark with a well-taken try, as the youngster alertly tracked Payne's grubber kick and anticipated the bounce better than three opponents to touch down in the corner.
Next up for Ulster before the return match against Zebre are Benetton Treviso in Belfast on Friday 3 March, another encounter where a bonus-point victory will be required to keep the heat on the top four.
Full-Time Score Zebre 17 Ulster 40
Zebre (15 - 9) Dion Berryman; Mattia Bellini, Tommaso Boni, Matteo Pratichetti, Lloyd Greeff; Serafin Bordoli, Guglielmo Palazzani
(1 - 8) Bruno Postiglioni, Oliviero Fabiani, Guillermo Roan, Gideon Koegelenberg, Valerio Bernabo, Dennis Bergamin, Johan Meyer, Federico Ruzza
Replacements (16 - 23) Sidney Tobias, Andrea De Marchi, Bart le Roux, Josh Furno, Davide Fragnito, Carlo Engelbrecht, Tommaso Castello, Simone Balocchi
Ulster (15 - 9) Jacob Stockdale; Tommy Bowe, Luke Marshall, Stuart Olding, Charles Piutau; Peter Nelson, Ruan Pienaar
(1 - 8) Andrew Warwick, Rob Herring (c), Wiehahn Herbst, Robbie Diack, Alan O'Connor, Clive Ross, Chris Henry, Sean Reidy
Replacements (16 - 23) John Andrew, Callum Black, Ricky Lutton, Kieran Treadwell, Roger Wilson, Paul Marshall, Jared Payne, David Busby