WESTBROOK — Every time Hope Lawler traveled past Casa Novello at 694 Main St. she dreamed of owning it. The problem was, the restaurant wasn’t for sale.

But she persisted and eventually Gary Manoogian, who operated the restaurant for 20 years, decided it was time to sell.

 “I have two sons in college, one is a freshman, and I had planned on waiting until they graduated,” Manoogian said. “But the timing as right, the market was right and it didn’t make sense for me to hang on to it.”

He has owned the restaurant for 18 years after opening it in 1999 with a partner.

On Dec. 1, Lawler will take over as owner. She will lease the building from Manoogian until the new year, when she’ll take full ownership of the building. Lawler said she plans to keep the tenants in the two second-floor apartments, one of whom works as the restaurant manager.

Lawler, 52, a Westbrook resident, has been in the restaurant business since she was 17. She got her start on the Maine food scene in the 1990s at the Village Cafe in Portland, where she worked as a manager. She went on to work in management roles at Macaroni Grill in South Portland, Shay’s Grill Pub in Portland and Famous Dave’s BBQ in Scarborough.

She also operated As You Wish Catering and Event Planning and the Maine-ly Meatballs food truck, two businesses she recently stepped away from.

“I am excited about this new venture. I love the restaurant business. I love people. That’s who I am,” she said. “I am going to be actively working in the restaurant.”

“She’s coming in with a lot of energy and enthusiasm,” Manoogian said. “I’ve been here for 20 years, and it is hard to keep up with the industry. It is better for the company for someone like her to come in and bring that energy.”

Manoogian said many of his customers’ favorite Italian dishes will continue to be served.  Lawler said she intends to make some changes, such as bringing in some of her own recipes and opening for lunch Wednesday through Saturday and offering brunch on Sundays during the summer.

“I don’t want to make waves, but I want to improve some things,” she said.

Aside from Guidi’s Diner and Profenno’s, Casa Novello is the oldest restaurant in downtown Westbrook. It was selected as the top Italian restaurant in the American Journal’s 2018 Readers Choice Best of Best contest and took third place in the Romantic/Date Night category.

Manoogian said he will miss his loyal customers and staff when he steps aside at the end of the month.

“This has been part of me for 20 years, so it is a little bittersweet,” he said.

Michael Kelley can be reached at 780-9106 or [email protected] or on Twitter @mkelleynews.

Hope Lawler has purchased Casa Novello. Lawler intends to keep the restaurant’s name, but will be making some tweaks to the menu, decor and operating hours once she takes over Dec. 1.