The 30-year-old has made a stunning impact on the English game, including reaching the FA Cup final with Chelsea, and follows Germany's Jurgen Klinsmann for Tottenham in 1995 and the Frenchman Eric Cantonal for Manchester United last year in capturing the 350-strong vote.
Zola will be presented with the award - by Sir Stanley Matthews, the original recipient in 1948 - at the Royal Lancaster Hotel, in London, a week next Thursday just two days before Chelsea's Wembley showpiece against Middlesbrough.
Another pocket-sized overseas star, Middlesbrough's Brazilian Juninho, earned second place. Chelsea will hope there is a Wembley omen in that especially as another of their forwards, Wales's Mark Hughes, finished third, just one vote behind.
Zola won by a distance, polling twice the total number of votes gained by Juninho and Hughes. The top English player was Manchester United's David Beckham in fourth place.
A delighted Zola, who is fighting an injury-battle after being substituted with hamstring trouble in Italy's 3-0 World Cup win over Poland on Wednesday, said: "Every footballer wants to win a prize like this. It is a big honour for me and I feel very lucky. It is hard for me to explain with words what I am feeling. It is not easy to be voted Footballer of the Year when there are so many good players in England."
Chelsea's Dutch manager Ruud Gullit, the runner-up to Cantona last year, said: "I am pleased for Franco and pleased for the club. Let's hope he gets a Wembley winners' medal to go with this trophy."
Zola will be remembered most this year for his winning goal for Italy in the World Cup qualifier against England at Wembley.
Frans Thijssen the former Ipswich and Holland international who won the FWA award in 1981 will fly in from Malmo where he is now coaching to join the football writers' 50th anniversary celebrations. And 14 other previous winners including Gary Lineker (1986 and 1992), Bobby Charlton and Pat Jennings will honour Zola at a gala dinner.
Sir Stanley Matthews, who won the award for a second time in 1963, is one of 29 Englishmen to have collected it. There have been nine Scottish winners, four from Northern Ireland, two each from Wales and Germany and one apiece from the Republic of Ireland, Holland and France.
Now Zola, who joined Chelsea in a pounds 4.5m move from Serie A team Parma in November, becomes the first from Italy to win, underlining the impact of overseas players on the British game.