LUTHER BURRELL scored his first Saints try but it was to prove in vain as Zebre completed the Italian job at Millau.
Burrell, who signed from Sale this summer, dotted down in the first half as Northampton proceeded to take the lead for the first time in the game.
But though they held on until the final few minutes, they couldn’t get home as Zebre scored two last-gasp tries to seal victory.
Martin Roberts, Jamie Elliott and Scott Armstrong joined Burrell on the Saints scoresheet in the Vaquerin Challenge match amid the mountains.
Zebre weren’t to be denied, though, and impressive fly-half Luciano Orquera orchestrated their win.
The No.10, who scored an early try and then shone with the boot, gave the Italians the impetus to seal a friendly success.
Saints’ England stars Ben Foden, Lee Dickson, Tom Wood and the injured Courtney Lawes were all at the game but only utilised as tackle bag carriers.
And they might have been glad to have been given that role as their team-mates started slowly, getting burnt inside the first three minutes as Orquera chased down a kick to score.
He added the extras and that stung Saints into life as they reacted with fire in their bellies.
Jim Mallinder’s men upped the power and upped the tempo, winning a succession of penalties, which eventually proved fruitful as Roberts took a quick tap to dot down.
Lamb added the extras but at the other end Orquera looked in good nick as he landed two penalties to put the Italian side 13-7 up.
The second of those infringements saw Ross McMillan sin-binned and the hooker took out his frustration on the dugout, making a bang as loud as the big band’s drum.
Saints weren’t to be deterred by McMillan’s absence and the introduction of skipper Dylan Hartley from the bench brought new life to the scrum.
Suddenly the men in green, black and gold had a platform and they scored again through new man Burrell, who flew in between the posts.
Lamb added the extras and he was to do so for a third time soon after as young wing Jamie Elliott put the finishing touches on a fine move which involved Hartley and Soane Tonga’uiha.
As is common in early pre-season friendlies, Saints made a raft of changes at the break, with summer signings Ken Pisi and Dom Waldouck seeing their first action for their new club.
It might have been a different line-up, but the history repeated itself at the start of the second half as the man so good they named him twice, full-back Sinoti Sinoti, scored for Zebre on 42 minutes.
Orquera missed the chance to bring his side back to within a point and Saints again moved clear minutes later as replacement Armstrong evaded two weak challenges to score.
Stephen Myler had the easiest of tasks in front of the posts and duly did his job to put his side 10 points up.
Kiwi centre James Wilson made his Saints bow during a second half which saw players go on and off as much as TeamGB athletes on the medal podium.
And Wilson’s kicking ability was there for all to see as he flashed booming kicks downfield to keep his side on the front foot.
But Zebre weren’t to be kept down and Italian international Giovanbattista Venditti powered through with 10 minutes to go.
It was provided the catalyst for victory as Samuele Pace rounded off a neat move and Orquera completed the job with an accurate kick.
Saints (first half): Artemyev, Elliott, May, Burrell, Cato, Lamb, Roberts; Tonga’uiha, McMillan, Mercey, Hicks, Sorenson, Craig, Harrison (Hartley), van Velze (Manoa).
Saints (second half): Diggin, K Pisi, G Pisi (Wilson), Waldouck, Armstrong, Myler, Glynn; Waller, McMillan (Hartley), Doran-Jones, Woolford, Day, Dyer, Dowson, Manoa.
Zebre: Sinoti, Sarto, Quartaroli, Garcia, Venditti, Orquera, Chillon; Perugini, Festuccia, Leibson, Geldenhuys, Caffini, Cattina, Ferrarina, Cristiano.
Replacements: Aguero, Ryan, Chiesa, Giazzon, Sole, Belardo, Cazzola, Tebaldi, Van Schalkwyk, Buso, Pace.